CLEMSON, S.C. — Somewhere between the screams and the sheets of rain and the yellow flags and the strides of fans prematurely streaming onto the Memorial Stadium turf was the Clemson defense’s sense that it saw all of this coming. That sounds preposterous, of course. A 24–22 victory over Notre Dame on Saturday played out in defiance of most known and sane ways to win games, an assessment that went for both sides. To expect any of it suggested a wild imagination, or a dose of football masochism, or maybe both.
But the Tigers kept talking in a mud-slicked corridor afterwards. And they kept explaining what they knew before a decisive two-point conversion at the end, and what they saw and heard over the previous two weeks, and what they envisioned as far back as the summer when this showdown was more or less a line-item on a to-do list. And, wouldn’t you know it, they made a convincing case that they weren’t the crazy ones. Even in early October, this was a College Football Playoff pivot game that both sides tried to hand to the other, and Clemson knew exactly how to take it in the final accounting.
“This is what we wanted,” delightfully brazen cornerback Mackensie Alexander said. “This is what we’ve been talking about through the whole summer.”
That would have made for an interesting conversation, given the particulars. Clemson roared to an early lead and then did a very nice job of jeopardizing it with unimaginative offense and no discernible awareness of where Notre Dame’s jugular was. The Irish, meanwhile, botched everything from catches to blocks to kickoff returns to basic math and nevertheless came within a few feet of a season-saving comeback. In the hyper-literal sense, talking about that over the summer would’ve inspired the NCAA to administer a few more random drug tests.
How it was presumably meant to be taken: Clemson played very good defense a year ago, ranking No. 1 in the nation in fact, but lost a good deal of talent from that defense. Notre Dame figured to be a very good team this year with some very good offensive players. And even looking at it from so far away, this game seemed to be as good a time as any to assert that the Tigers would play very good defense this year, too. That they could be the kind of unit to stop anyone. That they could be the type of defense that can save the day.
On Saturday, Clemson held Notre Dame’s top rusher to 3.3 yards per carry; held its top receiver to two harmless catches; registered four sacks among nine tackles for loss along with one interception and two recovered fumbles; and, though harried and exhausted by all it was asked to do all night, it stuffed a quarterback sweep from a couple yards away with seven seconds left, preventing the tying two-point conversion.
The Tigers coaching staff relied on its defense almost to a fault, and that defense delivered anyway. “We just picked up where we left off last year,” linebacker Ben Boulware said. “Everyone swore we were going to have a huge drop off, that we were going to suck. They were wrong. We shut down the four teams we’ve played and we’re going to continue to do so.”
So, yes, in a way, they saw it all coming. It was over the summer that defensive end Shaq Lawson first began appraising his matchup with Notre Dame’s Ronnie Stanley, who had been deemed a potential first-round draft pick in wait. “I circled this,” Lawson said, and after circling it he watched and scouted how Stanley worked. Lawson came into Saturday with a simple plan: Knock the Irish tackle’s hands down and beat him to the inside.
Measuring the success or failure of that plan probably requires a deep dive into the film, but this is what we empirically knew: Lawson had 3.5 of his team’s nine tackles for loss Saturday and, when the Irish needed to score to tie the game, they opted not to run behind their potential first-round draft pick left tackle. They opted to run directly away from Lawson instead.
“We had the best D-line in the country last year and we have one of the best D-lines this year,” Boulware said. “There’s no drop-off, and I’ve been trying to tell everybody that. No one’s believed me. But it’s true.”
Also true: The meticulousness hardly ends there. It was Wednesday evening that Dabo Swinney left the clamor of family dinner night behind, rode a stadium elevator down a few floors and began the walk to his office when he abruptly stopped at an open door. The Clemson coach stuck his head into the room and smiled wide. At one of his assistant’s desks, there was Alexander, long after practice, well after training table, his eyes fixed on an iPad screen, studying film in advance of a test against one of the nation’s most propulsive wideouts, Notre Dame’s Will Fuller.
Swinney asked Alexander if he could bring him some pajamas, given the long night that the defensive back apparently aimed to put in. Then the Tigers coach continued on down the hall. “First rounder on first rounder,” Swinney said then of the Alexander-Fuller matchup, and it was no misdirection. Alexander tracked Fuller all over the field all night; when he wasn’t yammering in Fuller’s face, Alexander was wagging a finger in front of it. And in the end a Biletnikoff Award candidate averaging 113.5 receiving yards per game caught two passes for 37 yards Saturday.
“This is something I’ve been doing my whole life, if you check my background,” Alexander said. “I’ve been locking guys up all my life.”
Still, the defense was stressed to its snapping point by the offense’s dogged refusal to get yards and score touchdowns in the latter portions of the second half.
So with six and a half minutes left, it intercepted a DeShone Kizer pass. With a little more than two minutes left, it forced a Chris Brown fumble at the four-yard line, just as Notre Dame made its first push to a potential tying score. Finally, the unrelenting Irish crossed the goal-line and set up for the fateful two-point conversion with seven seconds left. Clemson was not in Notre Dame’s huddle before the play. It might as well have been.
Kizer moved right after the snap and had the option to run or pass depending on the numbers. The redshirt freshman chose run, which Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly afterward deemed the correct read. The problem was that Clemson beat him there, in every sense. “They ran that little option play with the double-slot plus with their running back to the field,” Boulware said. “They ran it a couple times tonight, so we kind of figured it was going to happen again.”
Or as Lawson put it: “We knew that was coming.”
It was impossible to know any of this was coming, at least definitively, and yet Clemson presented a fairly convincing case that it did. The Tigers now merit admittedly early consideration as a viable playoff contender because their defense decided what it would be this summer and followed through and saved the day on an obnoxiously cold, wet October night.
Surely, Kelly’s mismanagement of two-point conversions will receive its due attention in the coming days—Notre Dame first tried one with 14 minutes to go, and had it not, the Irish might have been kicking an extra point to tie at the end—but it was Clemson that needed to recover from the shock of the late touchdown and then hold the few feet of space between Kizer and the end zone. And the Tigers did that, because they expected to.
“We don’t panic when situations go bad,” Alexander said. “It was like, boom, (the touchdown) happened, next play, we stopped it, oh well they’re sad again.”
And then they folded down the goal posts as the fans ran through the rain to celebrate. Clemson remained on schedule to find a level that, despite 42 wins in four season, it hasn’t reached yet. Its defense, anyway, was happy to tell you they knew it all along.