Dabo Swinney summed up Clemson's 47-40 double-overtime loss to Notre Dame appropriately.
"Mistakes caught up with us," the Clemson head coach said after the game.
And he's right. You can point to injuries, not having start QB Trevor Lawrence on the field or playing a good Notre Dame team. But the reality is, Clemson had chances to win the game, and it was the other team that made the key plays at the most opportune time.
The No. 4 Tigers just couldn't come up with that last stop in regulation or keep the Irish out of the end zone in OT or convert what would've been a miracle fourth-and-24 to end the game.
So now the Tigers head into an off week licking their wounds.
"This will hurt for a couple of days," Swinney said.
All is not lost, and the Tigers will get injured players, including Lawrence, back with two weeks before the Florida State trip, but for now, there's an awful lot to improve upon. Here's what we learned about 7-1 Clemson coming out of this loss to No. 2 Notre Dame:
Lack of run game is a problem
Simply put, Clemson didn't have one in this contest. Notre Dame is stout up front, and the Irish had a great plan to shut down star running back Travis Etienne, but there's no excuse but execution to produce just 34 total rushing yards. Sacks hurt Clemson's overall numbers, but still, Etienne had just 28 yards on 13 carries. That's an average of 1.6 yards per carry from a guy that coming into the season was averaging 7.8 yards per run.
Basketball on Bowman Set to Kickoff 2021-22 Season
The Clemson men’s and women’s basketball teams will host a preseason tipoff event, Friday, Oct. 29 at 5:30 p.m. at Bowman Field on the campus of Clemson University. The event starts at 5:30 and will last one hour and admission is FREE!
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As a team, the Tigers are down to 4.08 per rushing attempt. They averaged 6.37 last year. The offensive line hasn't been effective, and Etienne hasn't had holes to get through. He's also put the ball on the turf in four consecutive games. This is all a huge problem. You can get away with being one dimensional against Boston College and Georgia Tech, but teams with good coaching and solid personnel will get take advantage of those struggles like Notre Dame did Saturday.
Tigers need Lawrence back
D.J. Uiagalelei was absolutely sensational the last two games. He's thrown for 781 yards the last two weeks. He hasn't thrown an interception in 104 passing attempts. Uiagalelei is going to be a star and potentially win a Heisman Trophy one day. That day wasn't Saturday.
While he helped Clemson rally from a 13-point deficit against a top-4 team on the road, he couldn't avoid a pair of sacks in double overtime. If he gets rid of the ball quickly on the first one, the Tigers likely survive to see another day and potentially force another OT, but going down in the red zone like that loses football games. It's no knock on him. He's a true freshman, but Clemson needs Lawrence back in those situations, which could certainly arise again.
No more mulligans
As crazy as it sounds, Clemson could actually gain more from Notre Dame's one-stop season in the ACC than the Irish. If the Tigers can win a rematch for the conference title in Charlotte, that loss without Lawrence and multiple defensive starters should bode well with the committee. It's basically what the SEC has been using for a few years. Losses to highly-ranked opponents allow teams to get back into the hunt, sort of like mulligans in golf.
In some years, Clemson hasn't gotten any and had to go undefeated because of a weaker ACC and the lack of ranked matchups. However, with ND in the league, they got one, but the Tigers burned theirs Saturday night, which means no more game-losing mistakes. FSU won't present a world of problems. Pitt and Virginia Tech have had some severe ups and downs, but nobody thought Syracuse and Boston College would give the Tigers a game. Health is imperative to staying alive, and beating ND again will get Clemson to the CFP, but there's no room for error.
Third-down issues finally got them
The Tigers have been flirting with something like this all year. They've been tremendous converting third downs on offense all year until Saturday. They were just 4-of-15 in those situations against the Irish, and the average distance on third downs was 7.1 yards.
Clemson can't do enough in the run game on first and second downs to give them easier opportunities to convert, and the offensive efficiency is hurting. The Tigers can still score points because of the big play, which Uiagalelei produced on some long passes to Cornell and Amari Rodgers, but converting third-and-longs earlier this season caught up with Clemson on Saturday.
Too far down the depth chart
Clemson won't use injuries as an excuse. Swinney said that Saturday night, and he should have. It happens. It's part of the game. Teams all over college football deal with in on the regular. Clemson has found a way to stay relatively healthy for many seasons, and it's a reason why this program piques in November and December.
But this year is different, and the Tigers are going to have to deal with some uncomfortable situations. Saturday, as several more defensive players went out, some of the replacements just weren't ready and the moment was too big. Talent is the lifeblood of a program, but experience matters greatly when you get into close games against good teams. Clemson's depth didn't save it against the Irish, and it'll be something to monitor down the stretch.