There was so much analysis into the lead up of the game everyone has been thinking and writing about for the better part of 11 months, it seemed futile to even try to take it all in. It wasn’t that it wasn’t useful or sound; it’s standard to point out the weaknesses and strengths of the two teams, but that’s not really what these games are about. It’s about playing like champions.
Naturally, I haven’t spent much of my waking hours thinking about anything else since the game ended. It was stunning, it was frustrating, it was exhausting. I’ve been filled with pride for the team and the way they played, without the ability to actually pin point why I felt that those emotions. And then it dawned on me a couple of hours ago: Notre Dame welcomed the #1 team in the nation into their stadium, the best overall program of the last five seasons, and they set the standard of play. They scored on their first official play from scrimmage. They scored on their first three possessions against the #7 defense in SP+. They got stops on defense while they weren’t being stopped on defense. The message was sent, “you’re not going to beat us without a great a performance.”
And then Clemson, the great program that they are, met the challenge. They battled back from being down 13 in the third quarter to tie it. They began to show their championship mettle. They made play after play, finally taking a seven point lead late in the fourth quarter. They met the standard of play and then raised it another level. This is when it has fallen apart time after time for Notre Dame. They haven’t had that extra gear. Until last night. They raised their game to that level, to that championship level, and made every play they needed to make in order to emerge victorious.
Since 1993, we’ve been waiting for it. Don’t just be competitive, win. Win the game when the stakes and level are the highest. On Saturday, November 7th, 2020, they did it.
Ian Book Re-Writes His Story
A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a piece about Ian Book, calling him a fighter. No matter what anyone thinks about his talent or level of play, he will fight with you, and we won’t shrink. He may miss throws, he may miss reads, but he’ll keep coming. When he fumbled the ball inside the five yard line in the fourth quarter with a chance to take the lead, it felt like a back breaker. And it was a shame because Book had played so well to that point. But, it was a crucial mistake. Mike Tirico said on the following drive his teammates would have to pick him up, he was sure to be down on himself. My first thought was “no, not Ian. He doesn’t feel that, he’ll just keep playing.” And keep playing he did.
There is some talk about where Book ranks amongst all-time Notre Dame quarterbacks now. It’s a discussion that’s sure to be lively, and it ultimately causes us to put down some quarterbacks to lift up others, so I try not to engage too much. What I do know is Book just put up 375 yards of total offense against the #1 team with the best defensive coordinator in the sport, while going 91 yards in under two minutes with the game on the line. It’s the sort of thing people write books about. It hasn’t been done since Tony Rice and Kevin McDougal, when we were all much younger, and some reading this piece weren’t even alive.
This can’t be minimized and it can’t be taken away, Ian Book is now a Notre Dame legend and at place built on legends.
The Stars On Defense Show Up
Great players make great plays in big games. We’ve heard it over and over again. Notre Dame’s great players on defense are Jeremiah Owusu Koramoah and Kyle Hamilton. Their task was to reign in star tailback Travis Etienne, and whoever won that matchup was likely to win the game. JOK responded with big play after big play, returning Etienne’s fumble for a touchdown, forcing another fumble, leading the team in tackles (9) and tackles for loss (2.5). He got off to a slow start and then took the game over.
Hamilton had less of an impact from a big play stand point, but preventing big plays is just as important. Hamilton was second on the team in tackles (8) had another tackle for loss on Etienne, and had a couple of touchdown saving stops. In a game where points are at a premium, making tackles that are available to you is key. And if you don’t believe me, ask Clemson if it would have wanted Hamilton one on one against Kyren Williams on the games first play.
The Offensive Line Makes Their Statement
Notre Dame has fielded a lot of good offensive lines in recent years who have put up big numbers in all games except for the marquee matchups. Think of a batting lineup who crushes starters 2-5, but just can’t hit the ace. That’s been the line for the most part of years past. While Clemson was without it’s best interior player, he was replaced by two five star freshman who take a back seat to no one. They also had the challenge of dealing with the exotic pressures defensive coordinator Brent Venables likes to feature, and any line facing this crew is going to have its hands full.
They responded with 209 rushing yards and tremendous protection throughout the night for Ian Book. It had to be a bit of vindication for line coach Jeff Quinn, who has spent the better part of the last two seasons being compared to the departed Harry Hiestand. Quinn was able to get his group to accomplish what Hiestand was not, an elite performance against an elite defense.