Notre Dame falling to Clemson 24-22 in Death Valley in dramatic fashion put the first blemish on head coach Brian Kelly’s squad for the 2015 season. And while no team searches for moral victories in defeat, the truth is not all losses are created equal. Notre Dame’s thrashing at the hands of USC last season provided little future value other than quarterback Malik Zaire gaining some game experience in garbage time. However, there were numerous positive developments from the Clemson game that should leave Notre Dame fans upbeat about the future.
Deshone Kizer’s poise is something to behold
In August UHND.com predicted Notre Dame would beat Clemson and that Malik Zaire would be the difference in the game. The thought process behind the prediction was Notre Dame’s offense would need to score many points to overcome the Tigers, and with Zaire lost for the season, it was doubtful the Fighting Irish would be able to do so. And while quarterback DeShone Kizer had been extremely impressive in action against Virginia, Georgia Tech and UMass, playing within the hostile confines of Death Valley is a challenge on another level entirely.
Kizer undoubtedly had his youthful moments. He had inaccurate throws and what was nearly a very costly interception, as well as a missed read that would have led to a Notre Dame touchdown. But he played well enough and with enough poise that Notre Dame had the pieces it needed on the field to beat Clemson. And although Notre Dame fell short, the fact the Irish had what it needed to win with their former No. 3 quarterback on the field speaks volumes.
ESPN broadcaster Kirk Herbstreit said it best during the game.
“His numbers aren’t going to blow you away when you pick up the box score tomorrow, but what’s going to impress you if you watch this game is how he just kind of hung tough. They have not been able to run the football, they have put him in some tough positions – I just can’t get over how he sits in the pocket, and how much time he has, and how he doesn’t panic.”
Notre Dame’s defense kept them in the game
The defense was a question mark heading into the 2015 season. Which defensive identity was the true one from last year: the one that helped lead the team to a 6-0 start, or the one that surrendered 44.5 points per game during the last four regular season games? The jury was still out as to whether injuries were the culprit that derailed the defense in 2014 or if defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s scheme was incapable of standing up to a spread offense with a mobile quarterback.
The beginning of the Clemson game hinted the latter was clearly the case. VanGorder’s defense surrendered 14 points within the first seven minutes of the game as Clemson bullied their way to 9 yards per offensive snap. But Notre Dame’s defense shook off the opening jitters and battled back. Clemson was held to 10 points over the next three quarters, and star quarterback Deshaun Watson was limited to less than 100 yards in the air with only a 50-percent completion rate. And all of this was accomplished despite Notre Dame’s offense turning the ball over four times and providing Clemson with short fields.
While Notre Dame losing is the ultimate storyline, the Clemson game was a step in the right direction for Notre Dame’s defense in its quest to prove it can slow down spread attacks.
Justin Yoon drilled one in a monsoon
True freshman kicker Justin Yoon has taken a lot of ribbing from Notre Dame fans after his rough start. The former No. 1 kicker in the nation came in to the Clemson game 4-6 on field goal attempts, including missed extra points against Georgia Tech and Massachusetts. The shaky performances were unquestionably going through the mind of Brian Kelly as he trotted Yoon out onto the field for a must-have field goal attempt against Clemson.
Notre Dame trailed 14-0 and the Tigers appeared on their way to a route. The momentum needed to be halted and the Irish needed a score. Facing fourth down and ten yards to go, Kelly had little choice but to send out Yoon to attempt a 46-yard field goal. A true freshman trying to make a desperately needed field goal in prime time in Death Valley is intimidating enough. Add historic rainfall and intensely gusting wind into the mix and the idea seems doomed from the get-go. But Yoon drilled the attempt, which was a huge turn of events for Notre Dame, and an enormous confidence boost for the young kicker.
Yoon has the physical ability and mental makeup to be a truly special player for Notre Dame. Irish fans need to be patient and give the true freshman kicker a chance to transition to the pressure of major college football.
Notre Dame is still in the mix
Any objective observer of Notre Dame’s 2015 team had to know they were not going to go undefeated. There isn’t a team in the country that can lose nearly one-third of their starting lineup to season-ending injuries and finish the season unscathed. Losses are fine – it’s the blowouts that are a problem.
Notre Dame’s start against Clemson had eerie similarities to Notre Dame’s blowout loss at the hands of Alabama during the BCS National Championship game. But rather than fall apart, Notre Dame’s defense dig in, and the offense overcame numerous miscues to take Clemson to the brink. The storylines coming out of this game will be one ones of Clemson’s survival rather than of Notre Dame’s faltering, which is exactly what the Fighting Irish need moving forward.
Whether or not Notre Dame is a playoff-caliber team will be sorted out soon with a looming showdown against the USC Trojans. What matters now is the opportunity still exists after a close loss to Clemson in Death Valley.
Scott Janssen is a blogger for the Huffington Post and has authored several nationally-featured articles, including an appearance on MSNBC as a sports contributor. He talks football 24 hours a day, much to the chagrin of his wife and those around him. Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.