Beyond the Boxscore: Notre Dame Unravels in the Cotton Bowl

What turned out to be the final game on the Notre Dame football schedule for 2018 began in promising fashion, but soon disintegrated into a 30-3 defeat to the Clemson Tigers in the Cotton Bowl. The defeat marked the first loss in 13 games this season for the Irish and sent the Tigers to the national championship game against Alabama.

The end result was likely not a surprise to oddsmakers, who had listed Notre Dame as a double-digit underdog against a team that had entered the game with 53 wins since 2015 and a 2016 national title to their credit. Early on, it appeared that those prognosticators might have overlooked the Irish–until the bottom eventually dropped out.

Listed below are some of the key aspects of the defeat:

The Fumble That Wasn’t

What could have a major momentum booster for the Irish was shot down after review by replay officials. The play came with 4:31 left in the opening quarter and after the Irish had tied the game at three apiece. On the ensuing kickoff, Clemson’s Derion Kendrick fumbled at the Tiger 13 following a hit from Cole Kmet, with Notre Dame having appeared to recover the ball.

However, an extended look overturned the original call and allowed Clemson to hold onto the ball deep in their own territory. Notre Dame was able to force a punt on the series, but watched a golden opportunity to collect at least a field goal slip away. The what-if crowd may have an extended debate in the next few months about whether or not the call killed any further Irish chances.

Coughing Up the Ball

Ultimately, Notre Dame had their own issues when it came to holding onto the ball, losing the ball on both a fumble and interception. That fumble eventually allowed Clemson to take the early lead and came when Ian Book was hit by the Tigers’ Clelin Ferrell following a two-yard run near midfield.

The Irish had avoided a similar miscue on the third play of the game when Dexter Williams fumbled, but managed to recover the ball at the Notre Dame 31. The interception was the final nail in the Irish coffin, coming on the second series when Book’s third down pass was picked off and eventually led to a touchdown that closed out the scoring for the day.

Second Quarter Nightmare

After Notre Dame turned the ball over on downs following a 10-play possession that extended into the second quarter, the upset hopes of the Irish fell apart by the time the period had ended. The 20-point onslaught began when true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence connected with Justyn Ross on a 52 yard scoring toss for a 9-3 Clemson lead.

Notre Dame CB Nick McCloud Headed to NFL

During that drive, Julian Love left the game with a head injury, which had a lethal effect on the pass defense. The Tigers did miss field goal, but then came right back with a 42-yard Lawrence-to-Ross scoring connection and the back-breaking four-play, 80-yard drive that resulted in a touchdown with two seconds left and sent Clemson into halftime holding a 23-3 lead. The key play was a 32-yard grab that also had 15 more yards tacked on because of a roughing the passer call on Jerry Tillery.

Running on Empty

The Irish running game had been clicking on all cylinders for most of the season, especially when Dexter Williams returned after missing the first four games. Yet after picking up 11 yards on the first play of the game, it largely disappeared and ended the first half with a meager 34 yards on 17 carries.

Notre Dame finished with just 88 yards on 35 carries, with the 2.5 yards per carry a far cry from the success the Irish ground game had seen all season long. That 11-yard run by Williams turned out to be tied for the longest of the game for Notre Dame, part of a team-high 54 yards. Book almost all the rest with 30 yards and matched Williams with an 11-yard run of his own.

The Look Ahead

Attention for Brian Kelly and his staff now shifts fully to finishing up the recruiting process over the next few weeks and seeing which players end up making themselves available for the NFL draft. Regardless of those decisions, the Irish will be taking a big hit on the defensive side of the ball.

Once that’s completed, getting prepped for the spring football season takes over, with an eye toward filling the holes left behind. The 2019 Notre Dame football schedule gets underway on Labor Day evening, September 2, when the Irish hit the road to fac the Louisville Cardinals.

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  1. I get ND people’s disappointment with ND in the Cotton Bowl, and for others, the ND detractors, I get their glee. What I don’t get is all this talk about Georgia being “elite”…how long has it been since Georgia beat a Saban team? When was the last time Georgia won the SEC?
    When was the last time Georgia won a NC? Went undefeated? Ended a season with less than two losses? What in hell is so “elite” about all that?

    Clemson, on the other hand, has a chance to really show that it is in Alabama’s class. They win next week, and they have two NC’s during the Saban era (to Bama’s five). That’s elite…that’s top notch. (Of course if they lose, they have one NC to Bama’s six…every bit as impressive as Auburn, Ohio State, and Florida State…but no more worthy of mention in the same breath as BAMA than the other “one hit” wonders).

    Right now, there’s ONE team that separates itself from the rest…not two (much less 4, and much much less the “also rans” like ND, Oklahoma, Oregon, Georgia and such). After Monday, maybe there will be two…I’d like to see it happen, I’d love to see Clemson win another NC (rather than see BAMA win its SIXTH) but I’m not holding my breath.

    Now every team I mentioned above is (or was) a great team…Georgia included. But in my mind, right now, today, they all pale compared to Alabama, and only Clemson has a chance to balance the scales a little bit. Good luck.

    Now I don’t believe, like David does, that winning an NC is the only measure of success for a coach…everything else, he tells us, is “loser crap”…because if David is right, then all that high fallootin’ talk about developing character and helping young boys and young men grow is just a bunch of cover talk by all those coaches of all the above teams and hundreds more besides…and I think most of those coaches are really sincere about it…as they should be. It is about winning NC’s, of course, but if winning really was the only thing, none of it would be worth the time or the money. Sports training and competition is only worth it if the tens of thousands who compete earn and learn just as much as the 85 guys who actually win the NC. And they do if they are in any kind of good program.

    That’s my “loser crap” talk David…coach to coach.

    BGC ’77 ’82

  2. Well, as usual. Dr. cartoon character, you are absolutely wrong. Georgia lost twice, once to a totally mediocre LSU team. Ohio St. lost by 29 points to 6-7 Purdue. Yeah they really belonged…

  3. The Irish played their hearts out but to no avail. They were given a beat down by a much better team, that much was obvious. Some of it was poor coaching, poor game planning poor play calling and poor playing by the team. ND fumbled, got intercepted and count them four false starts? To win, ND would have had to play a near perfect game against Clemson but they were 2 miles off from that. The worse result from this tragedy will be the negative tone/vibes the college play-off committee will have next year if ND goes 12-0 again. They will most likely pick an elite 12-1 team over ND. Who wants to watch a team in a big bowl game that only scores 3 points all day? Look at Clemson’s schedule and you will see that only one team scored 3 points against them and that was Wake Forest. The rest of the teams Clemson played, including Furman and Georgia Southern, scored at least a touchdown and several schools much more that that. So you tell me, who would you rather watch, a more than likely lackluster Notre Dame team or a school like Georgia, Ohio State or even Oklahoma? Notre Dame sure pooped their pants on this one!

    1. A year is a long way off and I guarantee we will be in the playoff if we go unbeaten and in the conversation if we have 1 loss only. Don’t forget we play Georgia, Michigan, USC. Stanford and probably a few other tough games I don’t know about yet.

    2. One that fills 80%of the seats. Oh, and don’t knock Furman and Ga. Southern they will probably take the place of Bama and Clemson when they go by the wayside. Deep South was the pits, even Bama until Saban resurrected it and modernized to contemporary standards.

    3. Doc,
      I have no idea who the next Committee will or won’t pick – and neither do you. It won’t even be the same people on the Committee.

      BGC ’77 ’82

  4. The fumble reversal was a biased call by the refs. and it changed the momentum to Clemson. I couldn’t even see how close the ball’s touch point came to the out of bounds marker, much less call it overwhelmingly evident.
    How about 3 out of 15 Clemson players tested coming up positive for steroids?? That is 20% of the sample pool was positive…no the entire team didn’t test.

    1. I do not think the officials were biased…we stunk up the field on offense and lost. It’s just that simple. But on the kickoff fumble, the ref on the field had it RIGHT all along. Unless the angle of the ball was radically different than it was, or the ball was actually BENT, literally bent, the point could not have touched the earth. 30 years of teaching physics tells me that. But I doubt the replay officials were thinking about their physics (or advanced math) classes. They were seeing what they wanted to see, as most people do.

      BGC ’77 ’82

      1. you can clearly see the tip of the ball on the out of bounds line. not over the line. not near the line. on the line. it was a good reversal.

    2. steroids? who said anything about testing positive for steroids? instead of all the complaining and blaming, take a hard look at the n.d. program. you name alone can get you only so far. at some point you have to man up and take an honest look at your program. you coach said Clemson was opportunistic with the loss of one(1) player and that Clemson really only had 4 good plays. one of clemsons best D-lineman didn’t play at all. why couldn’t n.d. run all over his replacement? Clemson did not need 4 plays to beat n.d. it only needed ONE (1). after the 1st t.d. the game was won. the rest of the game, ( 2nd half) was trying not to embarrass n.d. but still win. the nose of the football on replay was clearly O.B. on my tv.

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