Trevor Lawrence shook off an early interception, then proceeded to put on an NFL-worthy display of passing skill and running ability in leading Clemson to a 34-10 victory over Notre Dame in the ACC Championship Game. The Tigers were more aggressive on both sides of the ball from the opening whistle. They also demonstrated superior athleticism at the skill positions in a game that eerily resembled the 2018 playoff rout in Dallas between these teams.
The Irish started the game with a promising drive fueled by passes from Ian Book to Michael Mayer and Avery Davis. A pair of negative plays stalled the momentum, but Jonathan Doerer nailed a 51-yard field goal for an early 3-0 lead. When a Lawrence pass was tipped and intercepted by Kyle Hamilton on the next series, Notre Dame was back in business.
In what became a key turning point, the Irish were stopped inside the Clemson ten yard line and Doerer missed badly from 24 yards. Lawrence took over by hitting Amari Rodgers for a 66-yard score, and the Tigers never looked back.
Notre Dame needed to respond, but they squandered another scoring chance when Book and Davis failed to connect on a fourth down pass. Lawrence hit E.J. Williams for another touchdown moments later as the game entered the second period.
Clemson’s defense continued to ratchet up the pressure. Blitzes started to get home as the sacks and negative plays mounted for Notre Dame. The Tigers added a field goal and then a back-breaking 44-yard touchdown run by Travis Etienne with 21 seconds remaining in the half.
Trailing 24-3 as the third quarter commenced, Notre Dame’s defense showed signs of life by recording a couple of stops. Unfortunately, the offense consisted of Book running for his life from a swarm of bigger, faster defenders.
The Tigers finally broke through again late in the period as Lawrence called his own number and outran the Irish for a 34-yard score to make it 31-3. They added a field goal later before Notre Dame got on the board with a Chris Tyree touchdown run midway through the final quarter. The Irish drive was fueled by a cheap shot targeting foul on Clemson safety Nolan Turner, who was immediately disqualified.
Lawrence finished with 322 passing yards and 90 yards rushing. Etienne redeemed himself for a subpar performance in South Bend with 124 yards in just ten carries. The Tigers turned the tables on Notre Dame with a 219-44 margin on the ground. Their defense recorded six sacks and ten tackles for loss.
Let’s review the keys to the game for each team:
- Turnover margin – The Irish need another positive ratio. Surprisingly, the Irish did not turn the ball over and had the lone interception against Lawrence.
- Running game – Outrush Clemson again, including from the quarterback position. Lawrence outran the entire Irish team.
- Third down conversions – Maintain an advantage here even with Lawrence at quarterback. Notre Dame was three of 12 against eight of 14 for Clemson.
- Quarterback pressures – The Tigers nearly won the first game despite the lopsided statistics. Victory finally arrived for the Irish when they were able to get to the passer. They need to get to Lawrence much earlier this week. It didn’t happen.
- Tackling – Missed tackles allowed Clemson to rack up significant yards after the catch. Notre Dame must be better here. Not much better here, either. Lawrence ran through several tackles by himself.
- Kicking – Jonathan Doerer was excellent on November 7, but he has been very erratic since. Any missed opportunity will have adverse consequences on Saturday. I can say I saw it coming. Doerer’s short miss deflated the Irish early in the game.
- Contain the running game – Notre Dame’s attack is far less effective if forced to be one-dimensional. Clemson will attack Irish up the middle with Patterson out of the lineup. The Tigers did exactly that. Center Josh Lugg played poorly.
- Pass protection – Allow Lawrence time to find his playmakers down the field. He certainly did find them, even when he threw off his back foot.
- Limit scrambles – Find a way to bottle up Book in the pocket and force him to throw it away. Clemson did this to perfection.
- Get Etienne going – A 100-yard rushing performance by Etienne should lead to victory, but it won’t happen unless the offensive line performs much better than last time. Etienne and his blockers definitely answered the mail.
There is no question in my mind that Lawrence is a better player than Mac Jones of Alabama or Kyle Trask of Florida. He deserves the Heisman Trophy and will be the top pick in the 2021 NFL draft. If anyone questioned his ability before today, they won’t make that mistake again.
As for Notre Dame, Brian Kelly must continue to recruit and sign elite players. The talent disparity at the skill positions between the Irish and the Big Three of Clemson, Alabama and Ohio State remains large, and can’t be addressed in a single cycle. He must also find a capable replacement for Defensive Coordinator Clark Lea. Filling those shoes will not be an easy task.
This year’s veteran team has accomplished a lot and should be proud of their season. It remains to be seen whether they will be deemed playoff-worthy by the Committee tomorrow. If they are, Alabama poses a daunting challenge. If not, they deserve to close out the season with a win in a major bowl and put this disappointment behind them. If only Irish fans could do the same.