Beyond the Boxscore: Breaking Down Notre Dame’s Blowout by Clemson

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish were on the receiving end of some revenge in the ACC Championship game on Saturday, dropping a 34-10 decision to the Clemson Tigers. Last month’s wild matchup ended in a 47-40 double-overtime loss for the Tigers, but in this clash, it was the Irish who had trouble sustaining any sort of offense.

The disappointing performance saddled Notre Dame with their first loss of the season and now potentially puts their possible College Football Playoff berth on New Year’s Day in flux. Had the Irish been able to offer a competitive matchup, they likely would have solidified a spot.

Below are some of the critical facets of the Notre Dame loss:

Major Difference

While Clemson got a solid backup effort at quarterback in last month’s loss to Notre Dame, it was clear in Saturday’s game that the presence of Trevor Lawrence played a significant role in the Tigers’ win on Saturday. He finished by completing 25-of-36 passes for 322 yards, throwing for two scores, and dashing for 90 yards rushing on just eight carries, including a 34-yard scoring run.

Lawrence entered this season as a strong Heisman candidate. His absence from Clemson’s lineup after testing positive for the coronavirus likely ended those chances, though it’s clear that he likely remains the top pick in April’s NFL draft. Much like his performance in the College Football Playoff semifinal, Lawrence showed the Irish that he remains the top signal-caller in college football.

Early Missed Opportunities.

Early on, the Irish looked to be able to keep pace with their potent opponents, using an 11-play drive to start the game to collect a field goal. After the Tigers moved into Notre Dame territory on their next drive, Kyle Hamilton made up for a personal foul face mask penalty with an interception.

Despite then moving the ball down the field, the Irish watched their impressive drive stall out inside the Tigers’ 10-yard line. Jonathan Doerer then magnified the problem by missing a 24-yard field-goal attempt, and Notre Dame would watch Clemson run off 34 unanswered points to settle the issue.

Running in Place

Unlike their first game against Clemson this season, Notre Dame offered no running attack during the course of the contest and finished with 44 yards on 30 carries for a meager 1.5 yards per carry. In the earlier clash, the Irish had racked up 208 yards, but their inability to establish a running game made Ian Book‘s that much harder behind center.

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Notre Dame’s lone touchdown on the day came on Chris Tyree’s 21-yard fourth-quarter scoring. However, the contest had been decided by that point, and any importance over the overall Irish numbers rushing yards had long since faded. Indicative of just how drastic the change from last month was could be seen in Kyren Williams’ rushing totals that dropped from 140 and three scores at Notre Dame to 50 yards and no scores during Saturday’s pounding.

More Payback

Travis Etienne has been a dangerous runner throughout his Clemson career, but his ground game was largely held in check by the Irish last month. Etienne did show that he was a potential threat as a receiver in that contest, but he gained just 28 yards on 18 carries and had trouble holding onto the ball.

Fast forward to Saturday, and Etienne showed why he very well might join Lawrence as a first-round draft pick next spring. He finished with 124 yards rushing on ten carries and scored once. He also caught a trio of passes, though they only amounted to 12 yards in the game.

Back-Breaker

Any chance that Notre Dame had to get back in the game was largely destroyed by Clemson’s late first-half drive that boosted their halftime advantage to 24-3—taking over with just over two minutes left before halftime. Etienne delivered most of the damage in the 88-yard drive, including a 44-yard scoring run.

Etienne also grabbed a pass from Larence for nine yards, but the bulk of his damage came with the rush. That ability to balance the passing and running games made it easier for the Tigers, while the Irish were forced to rely on their running game.

What Next

Exactly what lies ahead for Notre Dame when it comes to possible playoff contention, but they won’t have to wait long to discover their fate. The final decision comes on Sunday, with schools like Texas A&M, Oklahoma, and Cincinnati trying to make cases for inclusion.

Irish head coach Brian Kelly sparked controversy on Friday when he threatened to not compete in the postseason because of the possibility of families of players not being allowed to watch. This loss could end up making that point moot.

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5 Comments

  1. That was the kind of game that used to make an honorable ND coach think seriously about resigning.
    Now, it just creates one more big check to cash, and and an even bigger, more humiliating shellacking in January.
    So much for the ‘tradition of excellence’ crap.

  2. Brad, perhaps in your next article you can give us a plausible reason why, in the Kelly era, we are continually served these late season embarrassments. I cannot remember a team in any sport, in any era that consistently regressed in big games the way the Fighting Irish do under Kelly. What gives?

    1. Totally agree. The lack of preparation was astonishing and it makes Kelly’s Rose Bowl comments look like he was distracted from actually coaching. Every time I want to believe ND is elite, we always get a crushing blow of reality in a big match up. Obviously I want to make the playoffs but I do believe Bama could beat us by 70.

      1. I suspect Clemson has the better team than Bama defensively at least.
        Pressuring the QB since my beloved ’85 Bears is modern football.
        The few inaccurate passes Lawrence missed on was the result of him being pressured.
        And it limits the chance to give the receiver time to get long.
        If a team doesn’t pressure QBs, especially elite ones, they’ll lose.
        It’s been that way for the last 35 years, and it won’t be different anytime soon.

    2. When you have two weeks to prepare, and one team prepares with different stunts and blitzes and the other team counts on “executing their (predictable) offense”, you have a disadvantage against elite teams. Ara’s “mirror defense” in his bowl game back in the day showed how presenting the unexpected makes a difference in big time games. Kelly-never!
      Book was confused because Venables had his best players back, and pressured Book.
      When your O’ game plan is “see if Book can escape” against an elite pressuring D’ you will not be able to compete. Quick passes vs. stunts might be worth trying. My grade school coach would try screen passes a few times each season. Expect more of the same from whomever ND plays next.
      Hopefully, the predictable game plan of “executing our offense” will change someday during the kelly era. But I’m not counting on it.
      And spare me with the D’ not doing well enough; they gave up one more point in regulation than they did the last time they met vs. their back-up inexperienced QB. The failure was evident; the game plan was non-existent with no real adjustments. Expect more of the same next game and hope their opponent’s D’ won’t be able to pressure Book.

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