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.
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.