The next game on the 2018 Notre Dame football schedule serves as the toughest challenge yet for the Fighting Irish this season. That’s because this 12-0 squad is facing the 13-0 Clemson Tigers in the Cotton Bowl on December 29, with the winner of that contest heading on to the national title game on January 7 in Santa Clara.
Notre Dame and Clemson last faced each other during the 2015 season, a year in which the Irish ultimately finished 10-3 on the year, dropping their final two games. Their first loss that season came against the Tigers in an October contest in which the emotions of Irish fans swung violently from despair to excitement to ultimate heartbreak.
Changes in the Air
Since that contest, a number of changes have taken place at the same time that consistencies have taken hold. When it comes to those changes, Notre Dame’s fortunes have seen some drastic shifts along the way, while one consistency relates to Clemson having made a trip to the playoffs a regular occurrence.
The Irish closed out that 2015 campaign with two losses, with the first of those likely costing them a spot in that year’s playoff setup. That set the stage for the misery of a 4-8 season in 2016, followed by a comeback year that had some bumps against quality opponents. This year, those bumps have been avoided.
In the Tigers’ case, they’ve managed to compile a 49-4 record since that win over the Irish, with two of those losses coming in the playoffs. The Notre Dame victory was a turning point for Clemson, which moved into the Top 10 in the wake of the win and has remained in that realm ever since. The pinnacle of this run was the 2016 national title victory over Alabama.
A Different Look Behind Center
At the quarterback slot, each team currently has a different look than their 2015 setup. The Irish have Ian Book fully at the controls instead of trying to work two signal-callers into the mix. The Tigers from three years ago were the beneficiaries of the first of DeShaun Watson’s two monster seasons. This year, true freshman Trevor Lawrence has flourished, yet he doesn’t offer Clemson the dangerous running skills of Watson.
In the Trenches
Notre Dame’s success is also the byproduct of improved play on both sides of the line, with fewer sacks allowed and an uptick in getting to the quarterback. In addition, a decided jump in pass breakups this season have been seen compared to 2015. Meanwhile, the Tigers have seen more effective play with their offensive line, most notably in the 37 percent drop in tackles-for-loss allowed from three years ago.
The Comeback That Came Up Short
Clemson’s 24-22 win over Notre Dame in 2015 deserves a look back, given the instant classic status it attained at the time:
Like this year’s clash, both teams entered the October 3, 2015 meeting at Death Valley undefeated. The Irish were 4-0 and ranked sixth at the time, while the 3-0 Tigers were situated in the 12th spot, with the first three quarters being dominated by Clemson, which held a 21-3 lead.
Late in the third, the tide changed when Irish defensive back Cole Luke picked off Watson in the end zone. After three running plays picked up 24 yards, DeShone Kizer connected with C.J. Prosise on a 56-yards scoring pass and though the two-point conversion attempt failed, it was now a 21-9 game with 14:13 left.
The Tigers answered with a field goal, but Kizer needed just 1:53 on four plays to make it a 24-16 game with 9:03 left. Clemson then managed to gain just 12 yards over their next two series, but Notre Dame failed to capitalize in either case. That’s because of a Kizer interception with 6:36 left and an even more costly fumble by Chris Brown at the Tiger four with 2:09 to play.
The Irish defense stiffened, with Clemson’s short punt returned to their 32 with under a minute left. Facing third-and-16, Kizer connected with Amir Carlisle for 20 yards to reach the Tiger 18, with a subsequent spike stopping the clock with 25 seconds left. Hitting Prosise for 16 yards to the two was followed by a one-yard toss to Torii Hunter Jr. with just seven seconds remaining. However, Kizer was swallowed up by Clemson defenders in his ill-fated conversion attempt.
Even though this game takes place in neutral surroundings, the Irish are still a double-digit underdog against a playoff-seasoned opponent. Still, using their offensive weapons and forcing a postseason neophyte like Lawrence into mistakes could end up making a difference and put one more game on the Notre Dame football schedule.