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'One of Those College Classics': An Oral History of Notre Dame and Clemson's Rain-Soaked 2015 Epic

The last time Notre Dame and Clemson met, it was in a driving rainstorm spurred by Hurricane Joaquin—a game that turned into a classic won by the Tigers in Death Valley. The key characters involved look back on the memorable night.

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.)

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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.