I usually write a weekly “5 things I liked” post about the weekend’s game. This week, that title didn’t feel appropriate following Notre Dame’s first win over the #1 team in the country in 27 years. So without further ado, I give you 10 things I loved about Notre Dame’s historic win over Clemson on Saturday.
Brian Kelly electing to receive
This set the tone from the opening kickoff. Facing a freshman quarter making his first start on the road, it would have been understandable if Brian Kelly elected to defer to the second half. In fact, it might have analytically been the right move. Kelly, however, wanted to show that he was confident in his offense and elected to receive.
The Notre Dame offense rewarded Kelly’s showing of faith by scoring two plays later on Kyren Williams’s 65-yard touchdown run.
From the opening kickoff on Saturday night, Notre Dame was playing to win this game – not playing to just hang with the big, bad Tigers. Kelly put his foot on the gas from the jump and never let it off.
Ian Book delivering the drive of his career to tie the game
The game started with a bang for the Irish, and regulation ended with a bank. After squandering a 13-point lead and then facing a 7-point deficit, Ian Book had to march the Irish 91 yards in less than two minutes to tie the game. He did just that.
Kudos to Tommy Rees’s play-calling on this drive as well. With just 1:14 left, he had the faith to call a run, and Kyren Williams rewarded him with a 15-yard pick that also stopped the clock by getting out of bounds. The next play, Book hit Avery Davis down the seam with a perfect pass to set up the game-tying touchdown.
The last time we saw Book lead a drive like this, with the stakes as high, was Virginia Tech last fall. No offense to the Hokies, but doing it against Clemson’s defense was a hell of a lot more impressive.
Jonathan Doerer’s big kicks
The stat sheet shows that the Doerer was a solid 4 of 5 on field-goal attempts, but one of those was a 57-yard attempt that everyone knew was probably outside his range. In terms of makable attempts, Doerer did his job, including nailing two attempts over 40 yards – most notably a 44-yarder in the 4th quarter to take the lead. Doerer also hit a 45-yarder in the first half.
In years past, Notre Dame missed those types of kicks in big games. Doerer made them on Saturday night, though.
Doerer started the year 3 of 5, causing some concern after he was so automatic in 2019. Since then, Doerer is 8 of 9 with his only miss that 57-yarder at the end of the first half.
Jay Bramblett’s insane open-field tackle
Speaking of that 57-yard attempt, that had the chance to be disastrous for the Irish with Clemson sending Travis Etienne back to return it if it came up short. It was indeed short, and Etienne got the ball in his hands in the open field where he is so dangerous. That is unless, of course, you have a holder like Jay Bramblett who moonlights as a tackling machine.
If Bramblett misses that tackle, the only thing between Etienne and the endzone is Jonathan Doerer, who, despite connecting on some big kicks, isn’t quite the athlete as Bramblett.
Had Clemson scored there, the momentum shift could have been devastating. Instead of a 10-point lead, they would have gone into the half up just three after a relatively dominating performance.
Kyren Williams’s pass blocking
Much attention is on how Kyren Williams outrushed Etienne by such a large margin (140 to 28), but the most impressive aspect of Williams’s huge game was his pass blocking. Against a defense like Clemson, you need your running backs to hold up in pass-pro, and oh boy did Williams.
Without Williams’s pass blocking on Saturday night, Ian Book would have been a few more bumps and bruises from Notre Dame’s big win. Seeing that kind of pass protection against a defense like Clemson was very impressive for a young back.
Notre Dame’s defensive stars playing like stars
In my preview post, I said that Notre Dame needed its stars to play like stars against Clemson, and they did. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah had 2.5 tackles for loss (9 total tackles) and a huge defensive touchdown (even if his knee was down before crossing the goal line). Kyle Hamilton didn’t have a turnover, but he was all over the field and made several big tackles.
JOK was the best defensive player on the field on Saturday night, and I don’t think there is much debate about that. He played like the 1st round pick that everyone is projecting him to be.
Javon McKinley silencing his critics
Many haven’t written (guilty as charged) that McKinley isn’t the kind of WR1 that Notre Dame needed to beat Clemson. Well, Javon McKinley sure did shut us up on Saturday night, didn’t he? He ended the night with five catches for 102 yards, including a monster 45-yarder in the third quarter.
The stats alone don’t tell the full story, though; it was how McKinley made his catches. Almost everything was contested, and he still made the grabs. He struggled in similar situations earlier this year, but when the lights were the brightest, he came through in a big way.
McKinley now has 366 yards on the season – 195 of which have come in the last two weeks.
Michael Mayer bouncing back from a rough start
Freshman TE Michael Mayer had a rough start to the first huge game of his career. He was flagged for a false start on 4th and goal from the 1-yard line on Notre Dame’s second drive of the game. Then he dropped what would have been a touchdown pass in the second quarter because he turned to reach for the endzone before securing the catch.
That’s the kind of start that could have caused some true freshmen to go into a shell. Instead, Mayer responded with five catches for 67 yards, including a big catch and run for 27 yards on a third-down where he got the ball well short of the line to gain but still picked it up.
Hell of a way for the young kid to rebound after a pretty rough start.
Notre Dame’s pass rush coming alive when needed most
Notre Dame could not generate a lot of pressure on Saturday night until it mattered most. Then the pass rush came alive and swallowed up Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei. After Notre Dame took the lead for good in the second OT, Ade Ogeundeji and JOK converged on Uiagalelei on Clemson’s first play for a loss of nine yards. On the next play, Daelin Hayes consumed Uiagalelei for a loss of five, setting up a 3rd and 24.
Clark Lea and Mike Elston have some work to do between now and the eventual rematch with Clemson (assuming both teams continue winning) to generate more pressure with the front four, but when Notre Dame needed its defense to step up and make some plays, the pass rush came alive.
Notre Dame’s offensive line playing big in a big game
Jeff Quinn was a polarizing hire to replace Harry Hiestand because it was seen as a “crony hire.” Over the past two seasons, the offensive line didn’t exactly play at an elite level either, which only added fuel to the fire. This off-season, the narrative was that Quinn and Tommy Rees were much more in lockstep with the blocking schemes relative to the running game. We are seeing that come to fruition in front of our eyes.
Against Clemson, Notre Dame ran the ball for 208 yards on 40 attempts. I thought the Irish would be able to move the ball on the ground against Clemson but didn’t think they’d top 200 yards.
Clemson also only got to Ian Book two times on the night. Book used his legs to scramble, and Kyren Williams’s blocking aided that as well, but the line holding up against an elite front is a big reason why Notre Dame won the game.