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One-dimensional Irish offense can’t scrape by Clemson in all-around sloppy showing

| Saturday, November 4, 2023

Sofia CrimiVaroli | The Observer
Notre Dame defenders fight in the trenches against the Clemson front as Phil Mafah carries the ball for the Tigers. Mafah had 186 yards and two touchdowns as the Tigers defeated the Irish 31-23.

As Aidan Swanson’s second punt of the day drifted through the clear blue skies at Clemson Memorial Stadium, there was still plenty of potential for Notre Dame’s season to have a happy ending. Even if the Irish did finish at 10-2 and won their first New York’s Six Bowl in 31 years, the sting from agonizing losses to Ohio State and Louisville would have still lingered. But it would have marked a definitive step forward for the Irish in year two of the Marcus Freeman era, a sign they were off the roller coaster and on the path to achieving the program’s lofty goals.

It was all in front of them. The ball was right out in front of senior wide receiver Chris Tyree, back to return. And, fittingly, it clanked off his hands for a fumble that Clemson recovered.

“If you turn the ball over, and you muff a punt to their offense, they end up creating an outcome that’s an eight-point loss,” Freeman said after the game. “And so that’s the reality of it.”

Even though the Irish held the Tigers to three points despite the plus field position, the sentiment the muff created never went away. It was already present in the opening moments of the game when the Irish jumped out to an early 3-0 lead on a 50-yard drive that featured one pass for negative three yards. It was definitely there when a big punt return led to a 41-yard scoring run by Phil Mafah, who darted past blitzing senior safety DJ Brown at the line of scrimmage. And it lingered throughout the picturesque afternoon that felt anything but to the Irish. Their hopes of a big-ticket bowl game were dashed by Clemson in Death Valley by a 31-23 final.

An Irish passing game that wobbled throughout the middle of the season lost all of the good vibes it rediscovered last week against Pitt. Graduate student quarterback Sam Hartman never got settled in the pocket, completing just 13 of 30 passes for 146 yards. The two biggest plays the all-time ACC leader in passing yards made were with his legs. The first was a 38-yard designed scamper that helped Notre Dame get back on the board after Mafah’s big touchdown run. The second came via a 26-yard scoring scramble in the third to answer a long scoring drive by the Tigers.

“We wanted to be able to throw some balls and throw some shots, but they did a good job of defending the throws that we put up,” Freeman said.

Hartman wasn’t as fortunate as Tyree in terms of minimizing the impact of his biggest mistake, though. Clemson marched right down the field after the first big Hartman run, culminating in a nine-yard strike from Cade Klubnik to Tyler Brown. Two plays later, the Tigers were celebrating again, as Hartman tried to squeeze in a short pass to the right flat only for Jeremiah Trotter Jr. to jump the route for a walk-in pick-six.

“[Trotter Jr.] got underneath the play, underneath the pass, and I shouldn’t have thrown it. Just tried to force one in there, especially backed up,” Hartman, now 0-5 in his career against Clemson, said. “You can’t do it, and I did it.”

Though those were Notre Dame’s only turnovers of the day, they were far from the lone sloppy mistakes by the Irish. While the Irish defense has held more than its share of the bargain most of the year, missed tackles were a theme for Al Golden’s defense. Mafah ran all over Notre Dame’s defense to the tune of 186 yards for an average of nearly six per carry. Graduate student safety Clarence Lewis was unable to wrap up Brown on his touchdown catch. Clemson had success running the ball even in the late moments when Notre Dame knew it was coming.

“We did not do a good job of tackling (Mafah) on first contact,” Freeman said. “That’s something that surprised me. I thought our defense on first contact would be able to make those tackles.”

The Tigers certainly made their fair share of errors, allowing the Irish to hang around. Down 24-9 at halftime, Notre Dame got the break it needed when senior safety Xavier Watts notched his nation-leading seventh interception. Junior running back Audric Estimé, Notre Dame’s lone bright spot on offense, plowed into the end zone to bring the Irish within a score.

A methodical 11-play, 75-yard drive restored the Tigers’ 15-point lead, with Mafah doing the honors again. The Irish finally found their big-play stride, immediately responding with a 35-yard completion to freshman wide receiver Rico Flores Jr. Three plays later, Hartman sprinted to the end zone to keep the Irish within striking distance.

Both offenses stagnated beyond belief in the fourth quarter. Clemson squandered several opportunities to put the game away, each more shocking than the last. A botched snap put the Tigers back 15 yards on a third and four from the Irish 35. The next drive stalled up thanks to a fumble. And with the game in their grasp, needing just two yards for a game-sealing first down, junior defensive lineman Gabriel Rubio stripped Mafah to give the Irish one last chance to salvage their Saturday.

Yet each of those chances was met by harmless incompletions and Hartman scrambling for his life. The Irish lost their top two centers, graduate students Zeke Correll (concussion) and Andrew Kristofic (ankle). In their first game without reliable junior tight end Mitchell Evans to throw to, Notre Dame’s receivers failed to gain separation. Though Estimé ran the ball well, both he and sophomore running back Gi’Bran Payne missed blocks that led to sacks. Hartman was quick to blame himself. But the Irish lost this game as a team.

“If you guys want to blame, put anything on anyone, put it on me. I played very poor today. Didn’t play well enough to be a winning quarterback, to be a winning football team,” Hartman said. “All the different situations, scenarios, are a part of my doing, and really all of my doing. I just didn’t execute well enough… I didn’t play up to the standard that this team, this fanbase, this university deserves.”

Notre Dame began each of its first three fourth-quarter drives inside its own 15 and never got beyond the 22. Clemson looked just as much the top-10 team they were to begin the year as the 4-4 team they were entering Saturday. But the Irish failed to execute when they needed to. Notre Dame went just 3-13 on third downs, lost the turnover battle and scored a touchdown on just one of three red zone trips. Each of those facts is concerning on its own. All of them against a talented but flawed Clemson team proved too much to overcome.

“I wish I could say it was just one or two things. But on third down, we weren’t able to convert. And I think a lot has to do with the pressure they were getting, but also, we weren’t able to get open and we have to continue to improve on our throws. We got to put the ball exactly where it’s supposed to be,” Freeman said.

There are still things at stake over Notre Dame’s final two games. But now the Irish have to prove what they aren’t instead of striving for what they want to be. When Freeman was hired, many deduced having a first-time head coach raised Notre Dame’s ceiling but lowered its floor. Saturday showed another example of what the latter looks like.

“Every coach and every player in that locker room has to own where we’re at and what we’ve got to do to improve. So that’s schematically, that’s as an individual, and then we’ve got to go back to work. There’s no magic formula to improve,” Freeman said.

“We haven’t reached our full potential. Today’s outcome is disappointing,” he said. “But as I told [the players], we’ve got to figure out why.”

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About Andrew McGuinness

Andrew McGuinness is a senior in Siegfried Hall and Sports Editor of The Observer. He is from Haddonfield, New Jersey, and loves all of his Philly sports teams, even if they don't always love him back. Reach out below or on Twitter (@_AndrewMcG) to talk sports or TV shows, especially if they're Stranger Things, Survivor, Abbott Elementary or/and Severance.

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