Notre Dame could not hang with Clemson on Saturday as the Tigers slowly but surely used their superior speed and athleticism to wear down the Fighting Irish and coast to an easy 30-3 victory in the national semifinal game. Trevor Lawrence hit on 27 of 39 passes for 326 yards and three touchdowns, while the Tigers’ vaunted defense lived up to expectations by smothering Ian Book and the Irish attack.
The game was competitive early as the teams traded field goals in the first quarter. Both came after the defenses recovered fumbles. Clemson dominated the second period as freshman receiver Justyn Ross entered the game and caught two long touchdown passes from Lawrence. The Irish tried to answer before halftime, but a failed fourth down pass gave the Tigers enough time to thrust the dagger into Notre Dame.
Tee Higgins hauled in a 19-yard pass that the defender had tipped but not batted away in the end zone, extending Clemson’s lead to 23-3 at the half. The Tiger defense toyed with the Irish throughout the final two periods, recording six sacks and keeping them away from the end zone. Travis Etienne, who was held in check most of the day, broke off a 62-yard scoring run in the third quarter to complete the scoring.
Two things happened in the second period to hasten the Irish demise. Star cornerback Julian Love was sidelined with an injury during that time, and his replacement (Donte Vaughn) was overmatched by Ross and the Clemson receiving corps. The second development is Coach Dabo Swinney adjusted the pass protection to counter the Irish blitzes to give Lawrence more time in the pocket.
Let’s look at the answers to the pregame questions:
Which quarterback will demonstrate the passing accuracy we saw during the regular season? Lawrence was excellent after the first quarter, especially on the deep balls. Book was largely uncomfortable in the pocket and his low completion rate reflected it.
Can Clemson’s defensive line dominate without Dexter Lawrence in the middle? Yes. They stuffed the run and brought pressure on Book from many angles.
Will Dexter Williams or Travis Etienne rush for 100 yards? Etienne’s long touchdown run was the only notable rushing achievement by either team. It did put him over the century mark though.
Which coaching staff will make quicker and more effective in-game adjustments? Swinney got his pass protection under control before halftime, and immediately seized the opportunity when Love went out of the game for Notre Dame.
Can Notre Dame cover the swift Tiger receivers? The Irish did well for the most part, but Ross was a difference maker that will be hard for anyone in the college ranks to cover.
Will either special teams be able to tilt the outcome in their favor? Notre Dame blocked an extra point and almost forced a significant turnover when Clemson fumbled a first quarter kickoff return, but replay overturned the call.
Which team will best convert its red zone opportunities? Clemson scored its touchdowns primarily from long distance, while the Irish didn’t spend much time at all in the red zone after settling for their only three points of the game.
Can the Irish freshmen receivers help ignite the offense? I didn’t see them, but if they saw the field it was not a memorable experience.
Will the Irish put to rest any question that they belong in these playoffs? Not really. The defense was competitive when Love was in the game, but the offense lacked the power, speed and coaching required to play at this level.
The Irish will not have to wait long to test themselves against another elite team. The date is September 21, 2019 against the Georgia Bulldogs. In the mean time, there is still much work to be done.