Hello darkness, my old friend. After hearing about how Notre Dame was going to get rolled by Clemson in the playoffs and trying to figure out how the Irish were going to shock the world, the Irish fell apart on the national stage once again on Saturday. This time the Irish got pushed around 30-3 by Clemson in their first appearance in the College Football Playoff. Not much went right for Notre Dame yesterday in another game that is going to sting for Irish fans for a long, long time.
I waited until the morning after for this column because I just couldn’t bring myself to put pen to paper after a disappointing performance, but it’s time to crack open the 6-pack.
1. Notre Dame couldn’t overcome the loss of Julian Love and that is bad
Notre Dame had a good defensive game plan in place for Clemson that was based on having All-American CB Julian Love on the field for 60 minutes. When Love went out of the game in the first quarter, things unraveled fast and by the time Love was cleared to get back in the game, it was too late. With Love on the field Clemson had a hard time moving the ball in the air. Without Love on the field, Clemson went to work on Donte Vaughn, Love’s replacement, and the scored three second quarter touchdowns including two in the final two minutes of the first half.
With Love on the field Trevor Lawrence was 14 of 24 for 98 yards and no touchdowns. Without him on the field Lawrence lit up the Irish secondary to the tune of 13 of 15 passing for 229 and three scores.
That’s bad on a couple levels. One, it means Notre Dame doesn’t have any other corners close to Love right now and does not bode well for 2019 should Love decide to leave for the NFL. He got a 2nd round evaluation from the NFL with a warning he could go later. Now, any NFL evaluator could look at those stats above and bump up Love, but assuming he does leave, Notre Dame could be in trouble at corner next year.
Clark Lea will have an entire off-season to potentially figure out how he adapts without Love if he leaves. Yesterday he had a couple minutes to do so and Notre Dame’s lack of another shutdown corner to plug in for him cost the Irish dearly.
2. Clemson moved on without Dexter Lawrence without missing a beat
On the flip side, Clemson was without their star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence for a failed drug test related to PEDs. The Tigers did not miss a beat up front because they plugged in another nasty defensive lineman to their rotation and still got pressure on Notre Dame all night long. The difference here is two fold. First, Clemson did have over a week to prepare for the possibility of not having Lawrence, they didn’t have to adjust on the fly. Secondly, and more importantly, they did not have to change what they wanted to do at all by not having one player.
Clemson was able to do that because of how well they recruit defensive linemen. Up until the last two recruiting cycles, corner was a huge weakness for the Irish on the recruiting trail and it showed this year both when Shaun Crawford was lost for the year and it took Notre Dame all season to stabilize the nickel and then even more so last night.
If Notre Dame wants to get back to this type of game and finally be competitive and have a chance to win one of them, they have to keep recruiting at a high level.
3. Notre Dame’s offensive line got pushed around
This year was always going to be a transition year for the Notre Dame offensive line, but it is concerning that by game 13, the jury is still out. Obviously having Alex Bars all season long would have been much more ideal, but again, that is one player. Clemson’s defensive front pushed Notre Dame around from start to finish on Saturday and had Ian Book rattled early.
Even with an All-ACC and future 1st round pick at DT in Lawrence, Clemson did what they wanted to the Notre Dame offensive line. The encouraging thing for Notre Dame here is that four of the five linemen who started yesterday will be back next year and this experience should help them in the future. It did not help them yesterday though.
Notre Dame had to protect Ian Book and give him time to pass if they were going to have a chance. They did not protect him and thus never had a chance. Clemson racked up six sacks.
4. Notre Dame actually did a pretty good job of containing the Clemson running game
Travis Etienne’s final stats looked pretty good, but that was in large part to his 62 yard run at the end of the third quarter. Outside of that run, he ran 13 times for 47 yards (3.6 yards per carry). That doesn’t take the 62 yarder that was really the final dagger off the scoreboard, but it does show that Notre Dame was able to contain him for almost three quarters of the game. And if I had told you that Etienne would only run for 109 yards on the night before the game, you probably would have taken that and expected it to mean the Irish had a chance.
That type of effort should have been enough to keep Notre Dame in the ballgame. It wasn’t primarily because the Irish offense just could not do anything on Clemson. And when they did, they ended up shooting themselves in the foot. We knew Clemson was going to score points and run the ball. Again, if I told you before the game Clemson would score 30 points and Etienne would run for 109 you probably would have thought the Irish had a decent chance.
Alohi Gilman set a Notre Dame bowl record with 19 tackles. Tevon Coney wasn’t far behind with 16. Drue Tranquill added 11. All of those tackles unfortunately didn’t put any points on the scoreboard for the offense.
5. There were plays to be made downfield for Notre Dame, they just didn’t make them
Even when Book did have time to throw, the Irish missed plays downfield. In the 2nd quarter for instance, Miles Boykin got behind the Clemson defense and had an easy touchdown if he got a decent throw. Book under threw him and Clemson recovered in time to break the pass up. What could have – and should have – been a touchdown, fell to the turf for another missed opportunity in a game full of missed opportunities for Notre Dame.
For all the talk of getting more speed on the field before the game, we never saw it on Saturday. If anything, Notre Dame’s lack of speed and athleticism at wide receiver were never more evident this season than they were last night. When Love went out, the Clemson wide receivers were just too good for the Irish to keep up with. Notre Dame’s receivers on the other hand struggled to get any separation or make any plays. Boykin ended the game with 5 catches for 69 yards. All of Notre Dame’s other wide receivers combined had 4 catches for 32 yards.
Notre Dame is going to need to take a long look at the wide receiver position this off-season. Young receivers like Michael Young, Kevin Austin, Braden Lenzy, and Lawrence Keys all offer an upgrade in speed and athleticism at the position, but if all three starters for 2018 return, the staff will either need to get creative to get that speed on the field, or make some difficult decisions.
6. Ultimately it didn’t matter, but the Clemson fumbled kickoff should never have been overturned
In the grand scheme of things it didn’t matter, but Clemson’s fumbled kickoff that Notre Dame recovered should have never been overturned. There was not indisputable evidence that the ball touched out of bounds before Chase Claypool’s recovery. For some reason though, the play was overturned. What the heck is it with fumbles on kickoffs in Jerry World for my teams going very clearly against my teams? (See also the Eagles getting robbed of a clear recovery in Jerry World a few weeks back too).
NFL rules expert Mike Pereira agrees.
Am I the only one that didn’t feel the Clemson fumble should have been overturned? Did the tip of the ball actually touch the ground out of bounds? Was it indisputable? I don’t think so.
— Mike Pereira (@MikePereira) December 29, 2018
That play will now live in infamy for Notre Dame fans just like the fumbled punt the Irish should have had in the BCS Title game against Alabama. Had the Irish kept possession of the ball instead of having it stolen away from them, the game was still 3-3 and they would have been set up just outside the 10 yard line.
Ian Book’s fumble that was reviewed and awarded to Clemson was also a very iffy replay. Book had clearly fumbled, but the play was blown dead before a clear recovery by Clemson. Tough to get too worked up over that one though because Book did clearly fumble.
We’ll have more on just how things unraveled yesterday along with more on all that went right this season to get Notre Dame here in the first place. It probably won’t be much of a comfort to most fans who will be feeling this one for a while, but it shouldn’t be lost that the program did take another step forward this year. It’s just not on the same playing field as Clemson or Alabama just yet.