Kyren Williams scored a touchdown in each overtime session and the Notre Dame defense found an extra gear with the game on the line as the Fighting Irish beat Clemson by 47-40 in double overtime on Saturday night. Ian Book led a gutsy, improbable 91-yard drive to tie the game at 33 at the end of regulation. His scoring pass to Avery Davis came with just 22 seconds left on the clock. The win is the biggest for the program in the Brian Kelly era, and most notable in any season since 1993.
The game felt like a heavyweight slugfest from the opening series. Notre Dame threw the first haymaker on the second play from scrimmage, when Williams raced 65 yards for a score. The hosts settled for a field goal on their next possession despite moving to the Tigers’ one yard line, but led 10-0. Moments later, D.J. Uiagalelei got untracked and threw a 53-yard laser to Cornell Powell to get on the board.
Jonathan Doerer and B.T. Potter traded field goals as the game moved to the second period. With the Irish clinging to a 13-10 advantage, Clemson made the first major mistake of the night. Travis Etienne fumbled a pitch, and the ball bounced into the hands of Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. The junior linebacker brushed past Etienne and rumbled into the end zone for a 20-10 margin.
The combatants traded field goals once again before the half. The Irish retreated to the locker room with a 23-13 edge. Ten of Notre Dame’s points were the direct result of turnovers by the Tigers.
Clemson showed its mettle by taking control in the third quarter. A ten point burst sandwiched a three and out by the Irish offense, and the game was tied at 23 with 19 minutes left in regulation. Notre Dame was not going to roll over, though. Book responded by hitting Javon McKinley for 45 yards. The drive progressed inside the ten yard line before Book was stripped of the ball as he appeared to be going in for the go-ahead score. The play resulted in a touchback and the opportunity was lost.
Another pair of matching field goals upped the ante to 26 points each with ten minutes left in the fourth. When Notre Dame stalled again, the Tigers took over and went on a long march. Etienne capped the drive with a three yard score with just 3:33 on the clock. Clemson had its first lead of the night by 33-26.
Book’s first attempt to answer was halted at midfield. It was left to Notre Dame’s defense to get the ball back, but time was a huge factor. The Irish stuffed the Tigers, but a Will Spiers punt put them on their own nine yard line with 1:48 remaining.
Given a second chance, Book put the offense on his back. A pass and two scrambles moved the ball close to midfield again, but this time Book found a wide open Avery Davis on a seam route. Davis took the ball to the Clemson three yard line for a 53-yard gain.
As the seconds ticked off the clock, Book missed on two throws before scrambling to find Davis again just past the goal line. Doerer’s conversion tied it at 33 and the teams took a short breather to prepare for overtime.
The Tigers scored quickly to open the first session as Uiagalelei immediately hit Powell inside the one yard line. The freshman quarterback muscled in for a touchdown on the next play for a 40-33 lead. With the Irish needing to hold serve to stay alive, Book hit Michael Mayer on a clutch pass before Williams scored from three yards out.
Notre Dame started on offense in the second overtime. After Williams was dropped for a six-yard loss, Book found a gap in the Tiger defense on a scramble and hit Ben Skowronek with a pass to set up another short touchdown plunge by Williams.
Most observers felt Clemson would answer with a tying score, but no one told the Irish defense. The first two plays were sacks of Uiagalelei, who hadn’t been dropped all evening. Facing third and 24, Uiagalelei hit tight end Davis Allen over the middle, but Notre Dame safety Shaun Crawford knocked the ball loose with a well-timed, crushing hit.
A desperate hook and ladder pass on fourth down was swarmed under by the Irish, who leapt for joy as the COVID-defying students poured onto the field.
The entire team, but Book in particular, showed remarkable resiliency and grit despite a number of ups and downs. The game will become an instant classic, and for the first time in a long while it will have a happy ending.
Let’s look at the answers to our pregame questions for further analysis:
Can either team generate meaningful yardage on the ground? Notre Dame outrushed the Tigers by a whopping 209-34. Williams accounted for 140 while Book added 68.
Which quarterback will make mistakes in the heat of the moment? Book’s third quarter fumble near the goal line hurt, but he made us forget all about it later.
Can the Irish secondary cover the dangerous Tiger receivers? Not very well. Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards, and Notre Dame allowed Powell and Amari Rogers to run wild at times.
Will Notre Dame’s linebackers be able to contain Etienne? Owosu-Koramoah led the charge that left Etienne bruised and battered. He gained 28 yards on 18 carries.
Can either defense pressure the passer while preventing long scrambles? Both sides had two sacks, but Notre Dame’s came on consecutive overtime plays that essentially won the game. Also, Book was able to scramble for crucial yardage on several occasions.
Which special teams will gain the upper hand? Both kickers turned in exemplary performances. Punter Jay Bramblett made the play of the night when he tackled Etienne in the open field. Etienne nearly returned a short field goal attempt for a touchdown on the last play of the first half before Bramblett corralled him.
Can Notre Dame put together a successful attack plan in the red zone? There were a few squandered opportunities by the Irish that seemed catastrophic at the time. Fortunately, they converted on their last three trips – one in regulation and two in overtime.
Which defense will be able to get off the field on third down? The Irish were better, converting 10 of 19 while the Tigers were only four of 15.
Most fans will want to watch this game again in order to digest all of the momentum swings and great plays by each team. It’s a shame that 80,000 fans could not populate the Stadium absorb it in person. The best thing to come out of a moment like this is the long-suffering Notre Dame fan base can finally unite behind a special team of overachievers. They made an indelible contribution to Irish lore that will be remembered for a long time to come.
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