Where to being on this one. I thought the 5 things I liked column for this game was tough. This one turned out to be even tougher just because there was so much that went wrong for Notre Dame that it was challenging to pinpoint just five things. Notre Dame was outclassed by Clemson on Saturday night in the Cotton Bowl and brought us all back down to reality after a magical run through the regular season that delivered 12 straight wins before coming to a crashing halt in Arlington.
Here’s five of the main things I didn’t like in Notre Dame’s season ending, crushing defeat at the hands of Clemson.
1. The reversed call on the fumbled kickoff
I didn’t like it in the stands when it happened, I didn’t like it last night when I saw it again, and I hate it a day later after having time to think about it. Clemson’s fumbled kickoff that Notre Dame recovered should never have been reversed. The replay officials made a judgement call when replay is only supposed to overturn a call when it is overwhelmingly obvious that the call on the field was incorrect. There simply was not enough evidence for that play to be overturned.
In a 30-3 loss one play didn’t make the difference, but things may have unfolded differently if the Irish had the ball just outside the Clemson 10 in a tie game. Notre Dame needed every bounce to go their way to pull off the the upset. Instead the opposite happened and even when the ball might have bounced their way, replay officials decided it did not.
2. Brian Kelly’s decisions on 4th down inside the Clemson 40
There were two calls by Brian Kelly that I really wasn’t a fan off once the Irish got inside the Clemson 40 yard. Facing a 4th and 3 with the game tied at 3 in the second quarter from the Clemson 34 yard line, Brian Kelly decided to go for it. Inside a closed environment with perfect conditions, I would have liked to see Kelly give Justin Yoon a chance from 51 yards. It wouldn’t have been a career long for Notre Dame’s all-time leading scorer and if he makes it, Notre Dame has the lead. Instead, Book misfires on a pass and three plays later Clemson is up 9-3.
On Notre Dame’s first drive of the second half after the Irish defense got a clutch stop, Notre Dame was moving the ball and it looked like they might dent the Clemson lead. Facing a 4th and 9 from the Clemson 37, Kelly called for a punt. In that scenario, with Notre Dame finally having a little momentum, I’d have liked to see him roll the dice there. Tyler Newsome did ultimately pin Clemson down at the 2, but that was the furthest Notre Dame took the ball the rest of the game.
3. Notre Dame’s inability to get the ball downfield
Notre Dame needed Ian Book to have his best game of the season. Instead, he ended up having one of his worst. The Clemson pass rush clearly rattled him and he was leaving the pocket even when the pressure was not fully there yet. As a result he also missed a couple plays downfield that could have changed the course of the game.
On the drive that Notre Dame punted on during that first drive of the second half, Book had Boykin for a walk in touchdown from the 41 yard line, but badly under threw him giving Clemson the ability to recover and knock the pass away. Book doesn’t have a cannon, but that was a throw he had to make.
His inability to stretch the field vertically for Notre Dame allowed Clemson to pin their ears back and send pressure. Now, part of that was also do to Notre Dame’s lack of speed and athleticism at receiver as well so it was not all on Book. Never has that deficiency been more apparent than Saturday night. Clemson had receivers making plays while Notre Dame’s struggled to get open and to hold on to footballs that needed to be caught.
If Notre Dame can’t find an answer for its vertical passing game in the spring, this offense will not take the step forward it needs to be able to compete in these types of games.
4. Lack of creativity on offense from Chip long
Book and the Irish offense didn’t get much help from Chip Long with the offensive game plan either. Ironically I was worried that Notre Dame would try to do too much new and get too cute against Clemson heading in. Instead, we didn’t see much creativity at all from the Irish offensive game plan. The two back sets we were all excited for weren’t used. Attacking the seam with Cole Kmet who had been hampered by a nagging ankle injury most of the year never materialized.
In a game like this, Long needed to manufacture some offense with his play calling, but he was unable to do so. He will have better days as a play caller and coordinator for the Irish and his coaching future is still very bright. In the Cotton Bowl though he went toe to toe with Brent Venables and Clemson’s savvy defensive coordinator came out well on top. Venables has been doing this a long time and is one of the best defensive coordinators in the country so just remember that in case you are down on Long after this one.
5. Another bowl game meltdown that feeds the haters what they want
There are a ton of other things I could list here. All of the turnovers Notre Dame committed, Jerry Tillery’s bonehead late hit, Notre Dame’s lack of cornerback depth coming back to haunt them when Love went out, etc. In general though the biggest thing I didn’t like about this game was just that it was another example of Notre Dame coming up short against an elite opponent which is only going to feed the “Notre Dame doesn’t belong” talk in the future.
We already know that Notre Dame is not getting into the playoffs in the future unless they are undefeated barring some crazy other scenario where there aren’t any undefeateds, but now we will have to worry that there will be more pressure on leaving out a future undefeated Irish team from the playoffs since the last two times they have been 12-0, they have collapsed in the spotlight.
Saturday night could have unfolded differently if a few things didn’t go against them – namely that fumble and losing Julian Love – but Notre Dame needs to get back to a point where it can sustain those hiccups and not have to play absolutely perfect just to have a chance. Clemson and Alabama are the only two programs in the country at that level right now. Saturday night in Jerry World we saw just how far Notre Dame is from being there even with all of the improvements the program has undertaken the last two years.