No one would forget the last time Notre Dame and Clemson played each other. The East Coast was getting drenched by Hurricane Joaquin, while college football was preparing for its best weekend of the season, with five top-25 matchups. While some games in the storm’s path changed start times, No. 6 Notre Dame vs. No. 12 Clemson went on as planned. ESPN’s College GameDay hosted its show on campus, and the matchup remained in the primetime ABC slot.
As with any hurricane, officials on all sides monitored the storm all week. Clemson released a statement the day before the game confirming its ability to operate the game. The school was confident in the manpower available, the facilities, highway patrol, campus police and the drainage system underneath the field that would keep the playing surface in good condition.
The game delivered on every expectation of drama. Deshaun Watson threw two touchdowns passes and ran for another to hold off a late Notre Dame comeback and pull off a 24–22 victory. It was one of the biggest early matchups in the 2015 season between two undefeated teams, and it carried significant implications for the second ever College Football Playoff.
Sports Illustrated spoke with a couple of dozen people involved that night ahead of Saturday’s playoff semifinal rematch on Dec. 29 in the Cotton Bowl. Since the game three years ago, Notre Dame and Clemson have taken completely different paths back to each other: The Tigers are about to play in their fourth consecutive playoff, having competed for two national championships and won one. The Fighting Irish went 4–8 the next season, only to rebound the following year and run the table in 2018 to set up their first final four berth.
(Each person is identified through his position/title during the 2015 season.)
The Hurricane and the Hype
Hurricane Joaquin developed on Sept. 27, 2015 in the Atlantic Ocean and intensified as it moved toward the Bahamas. Though it never made landfall on the East Coast, it caused torrential downpours, flooding and harsh winds through Week 5 of the college football season. South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Clemson graduate, told fans to stay home unless they had to attend. There wasn’t an empty seat in Death Valley.
Shaq Lawson (Clemson junior defensive end): Throughout the week, we thought the game was going to get canceled. We still prepared, got an indoor facility. We used the wet balls and everything. We went out one day in the rain to practice. Whole time, I thought the game was going to be canceled and rescheduled. You’ll be dealing with that and prepare for a top-five team. It’s a little difficult.
Don Munson (Clemson radio play-by-play broadcaster): I’m going to say 48 hours prior to the game on that Thursday, there was all kinds of speculation the game was going to be canceled. That’s what state officials wanted to do. Heck, the governor at that time even said the game shouldn’t be played. There was all kinds of talk. I’m sure there were state officials who said, “Probably better if we don’t do this.” Nah, Clemson was gung-ho on getting it done.
Miles Boykin (Notre Dame redshirt freshman wide receiver, and the only offensive scout team player who traveled to this game): We knew it wasn’t going to get canceled. When a team is playing Notre Dame, it’s usually a team we don’t play every year, so they want to get that game in at all costs. Whether it’s in the rain, in the snow, they’re going to do everything they can to play that game.
For me, it was a cool experience my first time traveling. And playing in a hurricane, it was raining sideways almost the whole game. I remember freezing on the sideline and I also remember that game was when I realized, “Welcome to college football.” There were athletes on both sides of the ball. The sheer talent that was on that field was just ridiculous watching that game.
Dan Radakovich (Clemson athletic director): It was a turbulent week to say the least, with all the different weather scenarios and our campus here making sure that we felt that it was safe enough to host a game, to bring 80,000 people here to Clemson. We had conversations with a lot of folks in the state. I’ll never forget, the governor called me. I think it was Friday before the game, just to get an idea as to what our thought process was, given some of the other preparations the state was making, should there be some hurricane-type activity. We weren’t listed for that, but what we were listed for was just an incredible amount of rain. Forecasters were correct. It rained throughout the entire game.
Interestingly on Saturday morning, when GameDay was here ... that was another factor. That group came into town on Thursday and set up and did their whole show and they got some pretty interesting footage of our students sliding through the mud, but during the time they were on the air, it was beautiful. It was not raining. We were thinking, “Are we going to dodge this bullet?” Around 6 o’clock, the rain came in and, boy, did it rain. Once the game starts, as long as there’s not lightning in the area, we were able to play the game. There was never a great groundswell to move or cancel the game.
DeShone Kizer (Notre Dame redshirt freshman starting quarterback): It was nuts because we knew it was coming. All week we were preparing for it and our family is trying to make sure our travel is taken care of and everyone is trying to make sure they’re getting in and out safely. We didn’t necessarily know if we were even going to be able to play the game, so you’re kind of on edge the whole week. But we get there and play and the field was in good shape. They had this awesome draining system. During warm ups it drizzled a little bit and was kind of slowing down. But right when we got out there [for kickoff], it was pouring which made the game pretty interesting.
Judi Weiss (senior ESPN operations producer with GameDay): It’s very hard to forget. We end at 12 (noon ET). That seemed to be when the weather really started to pick up. I got to tell you, my guys couldn’t put plywood down fast enough before it started to sink in the mud. In some areas, we were three pieces of three-quarter inch plywood thick so the knockdown equipment could knock down the set.
It never rained hard enough during the three-hour show where it impaired us from doing the three-hour show. The winds weren’t strong enough during the show, but afterwards it was a very different story. It was just a sea of mud. The one thing I remember most, I was wearing a pair of Sperry galoshes that just go right under my knee, the top of the galoshes and the mud, I was sinking in it. It was pouring inside my boots. We’re all convinced that after the university repaired the lawn from that some of our plywood is probably still buried in the ground. That’s how deep things were sinking in.
Munson: I got there on Clemson’s campus around 3 and it was an absolute deluge. It was raining. It was raining. Wind was howling. Matter of fact, my wife decided, “Nope, I’m not sitting out in that stuff.” Had tickets for my father-in-law. They called me, “Not sitting in that stuff.” The amazing thing, I come on [the radio] an hour before kickoff and I’m watching this thing build. With about 20 minutes before kick, the place was packed. You’re like, “Whoa.” We thought maybe 65–70,000 would show up. Nuh-huh. There were 81,000 strong plus in the stadium.
The other amazing thing was how many people were still just outside the stadium just to be there for the atmosphere of it, see if they could pick up a stray ticket. There must have been 20,000 people outside of the stadium looking for tickets or just wanting to be there, in this deluge.
Kizer: On the way to the game we took some weird back roads. I don’t know if there was any other way to get to Clemson, but the way we were going was definitely off the beaten path. We ended up sitting at a stop sign for an hour but what honestly felt like eight hours because we were so excited to get to the game. You’re all dressed up and ready to go and you sit there for forever. Then all of the sudden you start going again and you pull up to the middle of nowhere, which happens to be this beautiful campus and this unbelievable stadium. I vividly remember people throwing things at the bus and booing us and definitely giving us a warm welcome as we walked into Death Valley.
Once the Irish arrived at the stadium for pregame, the chaos had already started. Clemson had a DJ at the top of the hill who was spinning original music on the jumbotron to hype up the crowd. Notre Dame players had never seen anything like it.
Mike McGlinchey (Notre Dame redshirt sophomore right tackle): It was my first time having a significant role on the team. The year before we had gone to Florida State but I wasn’t a starter then, so this was my first game that I was going to have to use a silent count the whole time. You couldn’t hear yourself think.
Before the game, the hurricane is coming down and we’re in stretch lines and the captains at the time were on our 50-yard line facing in and we were on the other side facing the top of the hill with the rock. And their DJ had made this custom song for them and all of the sudden you see spotlights zooming to the top of the hill and these orange jerseys are swaying back and forth. The crowd goes nuts and I remember hair standing up on back of your neck because it was a cool moment, like this is what big-time college football is all about.
Charone Peake (Clemson senior receiver): It was a really hyped up game. Notre Dame and us had a lot of star players. It was going to be a lot of great talent and competition in the game. You just come out for pregame and it’s pouring down raining. The rain takes away from the passing game a little bit. We knew going in that we were going to have to show some grit and change our plans a little bit, dominate in the trenches.
Munson: [The hype] had been building for, really, since it was announced, since the ACC announced the deal with Notre Dame and they gave the schedule throughout the ACC and all the sudden here is Clemson and Notre Dame on the schedule. Our fan base ... it goes back to Joe Montana playing in Death Valley [in 1977] and leading a great comeback and our fan base, being a little bit older, they remember that. They also remember the 1979 game at Notre Dame, where Billy Lott scores. Our fan base is pretty historical. They know their Clemson football history. They knew this was happening.
Lawson: A lot of our guys, we were watching them since the summer.
Jordan Leggett (Clemson junior tight end): We heard all the noise from the outside. “They have such a great offensive line, such a great running back, quarterback. If it comes down to a rainy game, they’re going to dominate us.” I wasn’t worried about all the hype from the outside. Coach Swinney did a good job of every day at practice working wet ball drills and different things to prepare us. We knew it was going to come down, if it did rain, to a battle in the trenches.
Peake: We didn’t change [the game plan] until game day. Our Friday night and Saturday morning meetings, we discussed it and what we would change [if it were raining]. We wouldn’t throw certain routes just because it was risky being rainy. Certain routes across the middle, we didn’t want to test it. Tipped balls will easily get picked. We had a strong line, strong running game. We knew we could still dominate in the run game.
Munson: I can go and sit in on any team meeting I want to. I’ll go and sit in on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday’s team meetings. Every game [Swinney] treats like the biggest game of the season. That’s the reason he’s great at preparing his guys week to week. But he’ll tell you there’s some that have a little more juice and, boy, this one has a little more juice. I can remember him telling them that line, saying that line. ‘We want to be concentrated week to week, but this one does have a little more juice.’ He doesn’t say that often.
The First Half
Clemson struck quickly, with Watson running for 38 yards on the first play. Six plays later, he found Jordan Leggett for a six-yard touchdown and an early 7–0 lead. The first half mostly went like that: The Tigers kept the pressure on and Watson was humming, while Notre Dame dug itself into an eventual 14–3 deficit by halftime.
Leggett: I remember it pouring down rain. The whole offense knew we were going to have to run the ball. We were doing great on that, but when it came down to the goal line, we did a little play-action in the flat and I was right there. That brought the stadium alive. Nobody wanted to be there, but once you go to Clemson, they sell out every game, doesn’t matter what the weather is. That stadium just erupted after I scored that first touchdown.
The one I scored my touchdown on, [linebacker Jaylon Smith] had me man-to-man. Some people call it a rub route, some people call it a pick route. Call it what you want. He got picked with everything coming from the outside in so he wasn’t able to get out there fast enough.
Wayne Gallman (Clemson sophomore running back): The line blocked really well that game. We made some things happen. I had found some holes, just working along the offensive line and really trusting them in the wet situations. Really grinding it out.
Kizer: That game was one of the first big games that I ever played in. I was kind of thrown into the fire, trying to figure things out, figuring out how the season was going to go as the starter. With the hurricane coming through and all the hype with Deshaun Watson, and him being one of my good friends, that was definitely a pivotal moment in my career and in my life that I was super excited for before the game.
Munson: That was one of the early moments in Deshaun’s career where you could tell this dude is a little different than the rest that had come before him and the rest that we had seen on the collegiate level. He didn’t care, just didn’t care. He was going to do what it took for Clemson to win that ball game. Defensively, they were just shutting down Notre Dame. They couldn’t do anything. Clemson’s offense is scoring points. You look up and there’s 21 points on the board and three on the Notre Dame side, but this was still Notre Dame. I said that to the guys in the booth, “Dudes, this was Notre Dame. You know there’s going to be a run.”
This was Kizer’s first true road game as the starting QB. He had rallied the Irish to a late win in Week 2 at Virginia, but only after Malik Zaire fractured his ankle.
Kizer: It was one of the loudest places I’ve ever played. I specifically remember the first third down where I’m getting ready to make a protection check and I’m yelling within six inches to my center about what protection check I wanted to make and he had no idea what I was saying. We had to call timeout on our first third down.
It was tough to communicate and Deshaun was playing pretty well. They had a great quarterback draw game going in the first quarter where Deshaun came up with some big runs early and they had quite a few veteran guys that made some big plays for him. It took us awhile to get going.
Lawson: I knew I was going against (future first-round tackle pick) Ron Stanley. I kind of knew what they were going to do the whole year. I had to win my one-on-one matchup. That’s what got me in the first round, beating him. I had a great day against him. We had a great defensive game plan with a good defensive coordinator, [Brent Venables]. He knew what they were going to run every time.
Clemson players were so soaked at halftime that many of them changed entire uniforms, from their cleats to their jerseys.
Carlos Watkins (Clemson junior defensive end): It was bad. I went through, like, three pairs of cleats. I finally took my gloves off. Running backs and receivers, they are switching out gloves and cleats. Literally, might have switched jerseys at halftime. Everything ... you put on new socks. We were drenched when we came in for halftime.
Peake: It was pretty rough. Your gloves don’t work as much. I don’t think any receivers left their gloves on. It was no point because of how much it was raining. We just knew we were going to have to run the ball. It was going to be a tough game.
Fourth Quarter Comeback
The Irish committed four turnovers in the second half, starting when C.J. Sanders fumbled on the opening kickoff of the second half, which turned into a Watson touchdown a few moments later. Down 21–3, Notre Dame began its comeback.
Kizer: Going into the second half we decided to stick to the game plan we had without the rain and that was to throw the ball quite a bit. There were some underneath routes and some easy passes to wide open guys and we were able to come back pretty good going into that fourth quarter.
Munson: Give Brian Kelly and his staff all the credit in the world. They made some great adjustments. They started running some crossing routes, and all of a sudden their wide receivers are running flat open and they’re scoring points. You got to credit Notre Dame’s offensive line. Those crossing routes took some time to develop. Clemson’s defensive front four and the rush and pressure Venables could bring with blitzing was pretty good, really good. But they kept in the tight end and a back.
The first Irish touchdown came with 14:07 left to play. Kizer found C.J. Prosise for a 56-yard bomb to get back in the game. But Brian Kelly, who was calling the plays, opted to go for two instead of kicking the extra point, even though Notre Dame would be down two scores regardless. On the attempt, Kizer’s pass to Corey Robinson fell incomplete.
Jack Swarbrick (Notre Dame athletic director): We were so sure we had that play that the risk calculus just changes. Sometimes you go into a game and you know you’ve got a goal-line play that’s going to work because of some dynamic with the defense. And of course it couldn’t have worked any better and would have had an interesting impact on the game, he just dropped it and sometimes that happens. I knew of our confidence in that play and so from a decision-making perspective, it was like, yeah, this will give us real momentum. The play design didn’t fail. Sometimes young people execute, sometimes they don’t.
Watkins: They really started tempo-ing the ball and speeded up the tempo on us. Defense, you get the playcall and get settled. It’s wet and guys were just taking small plays and turning them into big plays. We were giving us big plays as a defense. It was nothing like throwing the ball 50 yards down field. Just throwing the ball on a 10-yard completion and turning it into 60 yard touchdowns. That was the thing—what really kept them in the game. They made little big plays, kept the ball moving and tempo-ing us.
The Final Two-Point Conversion
Kizer rallied Notre Dame by scoring three touchdowns, the last a one-yard pass to Torii Hunter Jr. with seven seconds remaining. Down 24–22, the only option was to go for two and force overtime. That’s when Clemson defensive tackle Carlos Watkins stuffed Kizer at the goal line.
McGlinchey: The play was called 26, an outside zone to the right, which was something that we weren’t really strong on—in [that] we rarely did it. The defensive lineman got a lot of penetration on our right guard. Honestly it comes down to a block or two, holding a second longer and the ball is in the end zone.
Watkins: I felt they were going to pass the ball. Didn’t think they were going to do that play. They had tried it on us earlier. I ended up taking a false step and kind of got behind on the play. They zone [rushed] to my left and kind of cut me off. I had a hand on the guard and tackle. I was just keeping my gap and then it was just enough to where Ben [Boulware] came in and stuffed it. We all came in there and it’s just, like, causing a big pile. I was able to hit him a little bit and everybody else came to clear up the mess. It was a crazy play.
Kizer: It was a weird situation. You go into a game typically, especially at the college level with one, maybe two, two-point plays. You have your goal-line package, and you deem one of your goal-line passes and one of your goal-line runs as a two-point play. The first touchdown I had was on one of our two-point conversion plays, which was a quarterback lead to the outside that I scored on. We used our second one [on the failed two-point conversion after the first TD], which was a pass to Corey Robinson in the back of the end zone that unfortunately wasn’t completed.
So then you get to the end of the game and it’s like, “All right, well, we used both of them earlier in the game, which one do we go back to?” Obviously you’re going to choose the one you had success on. So we go to run that play and they had a pretty good jump on that and the D-line made a pretty good play to not allow me to drive my way into the end zone.
Munson: It was almost an exact play they had run earlier in the game. I think it was the exact play. He rolls to his right and all the sudden he tries to tuck it and run it and there’s just nothing there but a wall of orange. Carlos Watkins was leading the way. Boulware was certainly there. There was just no place for him to go.
Alex Bars (Notre Dame redshirt freshman left guard): I was on the left side so I was backside and needed to cut off the nose guard. I cut him off, they made the play front side, and because I was on the back running with him I was able to watch the whole play unfold on the right and see us not get it. You could see the disappointment as soon as we didn’t score.
Kizer: The only thing I knew at the time was winning. I had won a state championship [in high school], had a tough loss my senior year, but for the most part I was pretty confident that any time the ball was in our hands at the end of the game, we were going to win. Especially with all the talent that we had on offense and the spectacular offensive line we had to give me time to throw the football.
I turned the ball over with [six minutes] left in the fourth quarter in a very crucial moment, but we end up getting the ball right back so we have an opportunity to go score. We’re putting together a pretty good drive and all momentum is going in our direction to take this thing into overtime. To fall short in that moment was pretty tough. But it also was kind of a way of solidifying that I was going to be able to play at the highest level of college ball playing against a top-five team with a bunch of first-round talent all over the place. To be able to compete at that level made me realize that for the rest of the season, we’re going to have a pretty good team.
Gallman: We were all on our knees waiting to see if the defense was going to put up a stop. I remember everybody rushing the field as always. It felt really good just to be able to win that game in that type of situation. Notre Dame, the great school, it was good to beat one of those type teams.
Peake: It was crazy. Our fans show up for every game, but it was super loud that game. They stayed out on the field no matter the conditions. It was great to celebrate that win with our fans that night.
Watkins: Everybody stayed. It was one of those college classics. Everybody stayed and the fans came onto the field regardless of what the weather was like. It was crazy, nothing like I expected.
This was the night Dabo Swinney coined “BYOG, Bring Your Own Guts,” as Clemson fans rushed the soggy field to celebrate a massive victory. The Tigers would finish the regular season undefeated, win the ACC championship, beat Oklahoma in the CFP semifinal, and ultimately lose a thrilling national title game to Alabama, 45–40.
Radakovich: Really, it’s just a most memorable game for the people who were out in the stands. They talk about it to this day, of being there and watching the game and certainly the exciting ending of that game was great for all Tiger fans. It was a night that tested our police and all the folks that help us put on a game. That is an army of folks. We were able to make some good decisions. Even though there was a little less manpower than what we would normally have for a game—and we knew that going in, the result of those meetings I talked about—our fans were just fantastic. It ended up being a really positive experience, but it was nerve-wracking earlier in the week.
I think it was very important and I know that Dabo utilized that ... that was his famous “Bring Your Own Guts” game. It was really the time when the team saw they could compete at the highest level and be successful, take a backseat to no one and go out and, if you play your best game, you’re going to have a great opportunity to be successful. It really helped him throughout the remainder of the year and into the national championship game against Alabama, which was a fantastic game. We weren’t successful but it was a lot of fun to watch that game as well.
Leggett: We celebrated like we always do with every win but that one was a little more special. We got it done (despite) all the people against us, the media and noise, saying we didn’t have the offense and run game like Notre Dame has. It was special to pull off a victory like that.
Peake: It let us know how good we were and that no matter what the conditions or situations was we felt like we could come out with a win because we were so balanced—special teams, offense, defense. We felt like we could dominate any team.
Lawson: That was the turning point for that 2015 team. It gave us momentum to finish the season. Had us ready for the big dance.
All wasn’t lost for Notre Dame’s season. The Irish were still in the playoff hunt until a field goal on the final play of the season finale against Stanford put them in the Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State. That was the game linebacker Jaylon Smith tore up his knee and accelerated the trend of first-round draftees sitting out bowl games.
Isaac Rochell (Notre Dame junior defensive end): I just remember afterward everyone being like, “Well, we can still go to the national championship, we just have to win out.” I was so deflated. I was like, “Dang, I guess we’re not going to a national championship.” Because it’s so hard if you don’t go undefeated.
Joe Schmidt (Notre Dame senior captain linebacker): I think we kind of did everything imaginable to lose. We turned the ball over four times. We were going down and we had a chance to tie it on a two-point conversion. Frankly, that was ridiculous that we had a chance to tie the game because we had done so many things wrong. Defensively we could have played so much better, so I think we were frustrated that we had that chance on a national stage to play a really complete game and we didn’t.
McGlinchey: It was a heartbreaker. That’s something you always remember. If we don’t start as slow as we did, we’re probably in the playoff that year. I think that 2015 team was the best team I played on at Notre Dame. Just a combination of top to bottom of who we had on that team. I felt like we were the better team, but unfortunately we didn’t play like the better team that day.
Swarbrick: It was frustrating because we effectively had the same thing happen to us in consecutive years. The last play at Florida State [in 2014] where it appears like we had won the game and they call an offensive pass interference [on fourth and goal, followed by an interception to end the game]. Then sort of same situation, same stakes on the line, this time it’s a little more self-inflicted but in both cases you’re one play away from having a really big road victory that probably propels you even more firmly in the playoff discussion.
Boykin: It was devastating. When you redshirt, you’re the team’s biggest fan. You go through everything the team does but you don’t get to play on Saturdays. I was just as invested as everybody else on that field and I was devastated. When we got back in the locker room, I’ll never forget what Coach Kelly said to us. He said, “We’ve worked way too hard to lose a game like this.” Ever since then my mindset has changed completely. We’ve worked way too hard to lose in big games like this, and we’re going to do whatever it takes to not let that happen again.
While Clemson has enjoyed sustained success since that game, Notre Dame has completely rebuilt itself following the 4–8 debacle of 2016. But the programs have still ended up in the same place: undefeated and fighting for a spot in the national championship.