The Notre Dame Fighting Irish let a golden opportunity slip away as they dropped a 31-23 decision to the Clemson Tigers on Saturday afternoon. The defeat came despite facing an injury-plagued that had dropped its last two contests. One painful reality connected to the loss is that it likely eliminates the Irish from a New Year’s Day bowl berth for the second consecutive year.
Trouble emerged early for Marcus Freeman’s squad and despite opportunities to make a comeback, the effort ultimately failed. That futility was best shown by the Irish’s inability to push across any points over the final 21 minutes of action, with Notre Dame’s offense coming up short on seven different drives.
Below is a look at some aspects of the crushing defeat:
First Half Disaster
On two of the first three plays of the game, Audric Estime gained 48 rushing yards. From that point, much of the remainder of the opening two quarters was a mess that resulted in a 24-9 halftime deficit for the Irish. Estime’s early running offered hopes of a possible touchdown but Notre Dame ended up settling for the first of three field goals from Spencer Shrader.
Both teams punted after that three-pointer, with missed tackles by the Irish on the latter punt giving Clemson possession past midfield. On the first play, the Tigers’ Phil Mafah blew past Notre Dame defenders for a 41-yard scoring run. After each team then notched field goals, the Tigers marched 75 yards on nine plays to make it 17-6. That was followed by Sam Hartman throwing a pick-six to Clemson’s Jeremiah Trotter, who stepped in front of Holden Staes and dashed 28 yards to boost the Notre Dame deficit to 18. The Irish managed to whittle three points off that number by halftime, though the effort marked the second time a Red Zone incursion failed to garner a touchdown.
Hartman on the Move
Finishing the afternoon with 146 passing yards and throwing a pair of interceptions, Hartman did manage to distinguish himself by once again using his feet to pick up valuable yardage. The first of these came late in the first quarter when he took off up the middle and gained 38 yards. The dash eventually led to Notre Dame’s second field goal.
In the third quarter, Hartman tallied what became the final score of the game when he avoided a sack and then moved deftly down the sideline for a 26-yard score. The clutch play offered Irish fans hope that a similar result to another key Hartman run against Duke would materialize. However, that proved to be an elusive wish.
Trying to Stop the Workhorse
One key absence for the Clemson offense was running back Will Shipley, who sat out the game due to a concussion. He regularly teamed this season with Mafah to lead the Tigers’ running attack, with Mafah more than picking up the slack. Carrying the ball 36 times, Mafah gained 186 yards and scored two touchdowns.
The latter of Mafah’s touchdowns came after the Irish had established some early momentum in the third quarter by converting an interception from Xavier Watts into a touchdown. On the ensuing drive, Mafah gained 33 of the 75 yards, including the final one with a plunge to give the Tigers back their 15-point lead.
Reversal of Fortune
One week ago, the Notre Dame special teams excelled with a pair of scores in the rout over Pittsburgh. This unit’s performance against Clemson, the field goal kicking of Shrader notwithstanding, took an early turn in the opposite direction. The first sign of this came with the aforementioned punt by the Irish in which they had the Tigers’ return man stopped for virtually no yardage, but let him pick up 16 yards and set the stage for Mafah’s touchdown.
The most glaring mistake by Notre Dame in this department came with less than five minutes left in the first quarter. Chris Tyree appeared ready to pick up some decent yardage as he fielded a punt. Instead, the ball bounced off his face mask and resulted in a Clemson recovery of the muff. A solid defensive effort managed to keep the damage to a field goal.
For the second and final time this season, the Irish will have a weekend off as they prepare for the final two contests of the season. The first of those will be Senior Day against Wake Forest on November 18. The matchup should be interesting, given the fact that Hartman transferred from there to join the Irish last offseason. The two schools have met a total of five times, all since 2011, with the Irish winning all five clashes and outscoring the Demon Deacons, 194-88.