ARLINGTON, Texas — Notre Dame’s first trip to the College Football Playoff certainly didn’t unfold as planned. After an exciting undefeated season, the Fighting Irish were eager to build on that success in the postseason and show how they’ve evolved in the years they’ve spent out of national title contention. Ever since getting blown out by Alabama in the 2012 national championship (also following a perfect regular season), the program has fought a stigma that it doesn’t belong on the big stage. And there has been much national attention devoted to how the program has changed since going 4–8 just two years ago. Brian Kelly and the Irish have admirably come so far, but there’s more work to do.
Clemson pummeled Notre Dame 30–3 in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday afternoon. The Irish came out strong, then uncharacteristically allowed big plays and ultimately finished the season by fizzling out. Meanwhile, the Tigers will prepare to play the winner of Saturday night’s Orange Bowl between Alabama and Oklahoma on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif.
Here’s how it happened.
Two plays before halftime changed everything
Clemson led 9–3 with less than five minutes to go in the second quarter. Notre Dame’s defense was getting pressure on true freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence, and the Tigers had been light on big plays. Then, on third-and-14, Lawrence found his favorite target of the day, fellow freshman Justyn Ross, for a 42-yard touchdown, with Ross handily beating Notre Dame’s top safety Alohi Gilman down the middle in the process. The Irish responded with a three-and-out on the next possession.
Then with 48 seconds left in the first half, Lawrence drove Clemson 80 yards in four plays, capped off by a highlight-reel catch by Tee Higgins who beat cornerback Donte Vaughn one-one-one with a brilliant 19-yard one-handed touchdown snag.
Those two plays only added to the Tigers’ first touchdown early in the second quarter, when Ross beat Vaughn for a 52-yard score.
Heading into the semifinal matchup, Notre Dame was tied for second in the country for limiting big plays of 40 yards or more. In the first half, the Irish gave up two to Ross, both for touchdowns.
If not for those explosive plays, maybe the game is different. With them though, the rout was on.
A key Irish injury
Clemson’s first three touchdowns happened when Julian Love was not on the field. The star Irish cornerback left the game in the first quarter with what Brian Kelly described at halftime as a head injury. Love came back and started the second half—he made a tackle on the first play—but it was too late by then.
Love’s replacement was Vaughn, who got beat by Ross and Higgins for two dazzling touchdowns. The junior had played 184 snaps this season but did not see the field in Notre Dame’s last regular-season game against USC, when the Trojans threw the ball more than 50 times. Clemson was happy to pick on him while Love was riding the stationary bike on the sideline.
A familiar foe awaits Clemson in the title game
So many things didn’t go Notre Dame’s way. There were four calls overturned against them, defensive injuries (Love and briefly, Gilman and Julian Okwara), and quarterback Ian Book didn’t make enough plays. Book finished 17-of-34 for 160 yards, no touchdowns and an interception, looking off all night. Even when he hit go-to receiver Miles Boykin with one of his best throws of the night for a 21-yard completion late in the third quarter, he didn’t look as natural as he had earlier this season.
After that play, Book was sacked twice, then threw his seventh interception of the year on a third-and-22 right into Nolan Turner’s hands. Three plays later, Clemson running back Travis Etienne wiggled loose for a 62-yard touchdown to widen the lead, 30–3.
Now, Clemson is going to the national championship again. The Tigers will face one of two familiar CFP foes in Alabama or Oklahoma in its third title game in four years on Jan. 7.