The first time these two teams met in November, it was Notre Dame who set the standard of play. They scored on the first snap, they followed with another scoring drive, and then another and then another. They matched Clemson’s run of good play in the first half, taking a 23-13 halftime lead. (One less point than Clemson took to halftime yesterday.) One thing they did not do, which they had the chance to do, was bury the Tigers. They kicked field goals when they could have scored touchdowns. This kept Clemson in touch, and the Tigers, as they do, came around to matching Notre Dame and eventually took the lead.
Yesterday started in a similar way. The Irish took the lead again, this time with a field goal, and after a Kyle Hamilton interception, drove the ball to the Clemson five yard line, with a chance to go up 10-0 once again. Then they blinked. They couldn’t get the ball into the end zone, and compounded the issue by missing the field goal. Then after a long strike to Amari Rodgers, Notre Dame was driving again, but on 4th and 3 from the Clemson 28, they threw incomplete to a wide open Avery Davis. They blinked again. And Clemson, as they did in 2018, smelled blood in the water. They had a chance to bury Notre Dame and they took it. 17 unanswered points later, it was 24-3, and the Irish were dead in the water.
That’s the difference between Notre Dame and Clemson. Clemson can crush you in a blink, take your hopes and your dreams and squash them, and tell you about it along the way. Notre Dame does not have that level, not against a team like Clemson. (And let’s be clear, when I say like Clemson, I mean one of the two most dominant programs in college football over the last decade.) That’s currently Notre Dame’s place, as the Tigers reminded them in the ACC title game.
Explosiveness vs Execution
These two things aren’t mutually exclusive of course, football is by nature a game based on execution. But, Notre Dame is not, and has not been an overly explosive team offensively in 2020, which means the execution piece for them has to be on point. So, things like dropped passes, busts on first down runs, bad snaps that lead to five yard losses, and not maximizing red zone opportunities are magnified.
And yesterday showed why being explosive is a very good thing. Clemson scored four touchdowns yesterday, all outside of the red zone. Notre Dame reached the Clemson 30 four times, came away with one touchdown. They scored from areas of the field we reached, but could not score from. This is what makes them “elite” and what makes us a notch below. Relying on execution in games where you’ve got to score to win, against the best of the best defensive coordinators, is the toughest of roads.
Look at how Notre Dame scored the two regulation offensive touchdowns in the first matchup. A 65 yard touchdown run by Kyren Williams and a 53 yard pass to Avery Davis down to the Clemson four. Makes scoring a lot easier!
How To Solve This Problem
I’m not really into the “bridging the gap” question or state of the program stuff. Notre Dame beat the team it was said they could not beat, so that’s how close they are. If you want to use caveats about players who didn’t play, I’m not going to try and change your mind, feel how you want. (Vegas had them at six point favorites the first time, they still thought that Clemson team was pretty good.)
Part of this is luck. Kevin Austin broke his foot, Braden Lenzy kept pulling his hamstring. The explosive guys weren’t available, it is what it is. It’s not an excuse, it’s just a fact. They are forced to win these games without the explosive element you need to win these games.
Part of this is also using and developing the explosiveness they have that’s available to them. Chris Tyree is very fast, we saw this yesterday. He scored from just outside the red zone, and would have from much further away if he had to. He didn’t get a touch till the fourth quarter, when Notre Dame was down three scores. Not ok! Tyree has gotten work since the opener, 100 years ago. If he wasn’t ready enough to be trusted in a game like this, whose fault is that? That trigger has to be pulled.
In the end, we learned what we suspected before the season and wished wasn’t true. There are three elite football programs in college football, and Notre Dame doesn’t appear to be one of them, at least not when trophies are on the line. They surprised us once this year, maybe they will again against a tsunami of five star cyborgs, but for now, they’ve been shown their place, one more time.