Deshaun Watson and Clemson were in control all night against Notre Dame—until they weren’t. But the Tigers managed to survive a wild Irish comeback, giving Dabo Swinney’s team a huge win for its playoff résumé.
CLEMSON, S.C. — What should not have been a very interesting ending resulted in 80,000-plus clenched jaws at Memorial Stadium: Clemson, very much in control of a pivotal game against Notre Dame, then very much not in control, then surviving thanks to a gutting Irish mishap just as they reached the cusp of a ridiculous comeback.
So, in the end, it was a Clemson win by a 24–22 count, a game decided on a failed two-point conversion attempt that never should have happened, a game that could have caused far fewer heart palpitations on both sides but nevertheless keeps the Tigers squarely in the early College Football Playoff discussion.
Here are three quick thoughts on the drama:
1. Deshaun Watson’s leg is fine
There were some questions about the Clemson quarterback’s mobility over the first three games, maybe some lingering concerns that his left knee wasn’t all the way recovered from surgery last December. These questions and concerns were obliterated by a called quarterback run on the first offensive snap of the game, which Watson took up the sideline for 38 yards.
It set the Memorial Stadium crowd on fire and set the early tone that saw the Tigers leap to a 14–0 lead. Notre Dame’s defense figured things out for a bit after that, but the problem is Watson’s a dagger in the stomach waiting to happen even when you’re fairly certain you’ve solved all your problems. Hence the 21-yard scoring run after Notre Dame fumbled the second-half kickoff, when Watson snuck through a crease and some traffic on a keeper and burst into the open for a touchdown that took all the air out of the visitors. If Clemson’s quarterback is a legitimate threat with his wheels, that might be the game-breaking force that keeps the team in the playoff conversation for the long term.
2. Notre Dame couldn’t get out of its own way, especially when it came to doing math
The multiple drops. The horrid offensive line play. The fumble on the second-half kickoff. The DeShone Kizer fourth-quarter interception. The Chris Brown fumble at the goal line late that appeared to cut the insane comeback short before it continued a minute later. Indeed, there the Irish were, celebrating a Kizer touchdown pass to Torii Hunter Jr. with seven seconds left to play, on the verge of a tie.
But to tie, they were forced to go for two points. And had head coach Brian Kelly not decided to try for two points with 14 minutes left to play after a C.J. Prosise 56-yard touchdown, had Kelly instead done the math correctly and kicked a point after then, the Irish would have needed just one point to complete the most insane comeback in recent memory.
But they needed two. And Kizer, rolling to his right, didn’t get it, stuffed well short by Clemson’s defense. Ballgame.
3. Is Clemson’s biggest problem now the ACC itself?
Yes, we’re going to go ahead and drop a giant cart in front of whatever horse the Tigers are riding through 2015. Florida State comes through Death Valley on Nov. 7, but there might not be another impact opponent on Clemson’s schedule for the rest of the fall. There are tests, of course, like a trip to NC State. And rivalry games are always up for grabs, as bad as South Carolina has looked so far. But the general lack of quality in the league may handicap Clemson in the eyes of the Selection Committee, if things get that far.