Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence recounted how the postgame scene unfolded at Notre Dame Stadium last month.
“I remember the fans running on the field getting in our faces,” Lawrence said about the Irish and their fans celebrating after winning 47-40 in double-overtime. “You remember those days and keep those images in your head.”
Led by Lawrence, No. 3 Clemson (10-1) avenged that loss by dropping No. 2 Notre Dame (10-1), 34-10, at the ACC Championship Game on Saturday in Charlotte, N.C.
Lawrence completed 25-of-36 passes for 322 yards and two touchdowns with an interception. On the ground, he turned 14 carries into 90 yards and a score. The media recognized Lawrence as the game’s MVP. He improved his career record as a starter to 34-1.
The Tigers were without Lawrence when losing to the Irish on Nov. 7. Lawrence tested positive for COVID-19 close enough before the game to not be available but long enough to make the trip and roam the sidelines in street clothes.
Having the projected No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft back brought a noticeable boost to Clemson’s offense on Saturday.
“It’s not a knock on anybody else out there, but it’s obvious who the best player in the country is,” Tiger head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Sometimes I think people just take him for granted, like it’s easy what he does. It’s unbelievable what he does.”
True freshman D.J. Uiagalelei certainly impressed when starting in Lawrence’s place against Notre Dame last month. The former five-star recruit went 29-of-44 passing for 439 yards and two touchdowns and also recorded a rushing score.
Not once has Lawrence passed for at least 439 yards in his 39-game Clemson career. But the Tigers were more efficient and balanced offensively this time. In game one, they finished with 34 rushing yards on 33 carries and were 4-of-15 on third down. In game two, they converted 8 of 14 third downs and compiled 219 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 27 attempts (8.1 yards per carry).
After throwing an interception on his first possession, Lawrence helped Clemson score 34 unanswered points.
“We’re playing our best football,” Lawrence said, “and our best football is still ahead. I think that’s the biggest thing at this point in the year. We see a lot of teams start off really well, then just sort of fall off at the end of the season. That’s what we pride ourselves on from starting, playing and finishing well. That’s just something that takes work.
“Whenever we play, we are trying to make a statement.”
With 0:41 remaining in the first quarter, Lawrence threw his first touchdown pass of the game. He connected with wide receiver Amari Rodgers on a deep throw for a 67-yard score. Rodgers found himself isolated with safety Shaun Crawford in man-to-man coverage and created plenty of separation from the Irish defensive back.
True freshman receiver E.J. Williams hauled in Lawrence’s other touchdown pass. Lawrence found an open Williams across the middle of the field. Then Williams ran the rest of the way for a 33-yard touchdown with 9:24 left in the first half.
To cap his scoring output, Lawrence found the end zone on a 34-yard run with 3:43 remaining in the third quarter. That score increased the Tiger lead to 31-3 and effectively put the game out of reach.
“We talked about it afterward with the coaches. It’s the difference-maker,” Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said about Lawrence’s running ability. “His ability to run really stressed your coverage calls. It stresses a lot of the things you do with your fits and where essentially you are trying to get him to certainly not be that kind of player.
“And so what you are trying to do is bring some pressures that eliminate those runs. But it just opens up some one-on-one matchups that are not favorable. And so it’s a dilemma. It’s something we struggled with a little bit tonight.”
Rodgers (eight catches for 121 yards and a touchdown) and Williams (four receptions for 80 yards) were highly productive. Tiger running back Travis Etienne captured his second-highest rushing total of the season (124 yards with a touchdown), despite running the ball only 10 times.
With Lawrence leading the way, the Tigers clicked against an Irish defense that ranked among the top 15 nationally in most of the major categories.
“It’s about who is the best player, and he’s the best player,” said Swinney on whether Lawrence deserves the Heisman Trophy. “There’s a lot of great players in college football, but there’s only one Trevor Lawrence. And he’s a generational player.”
James Skalski also shined after missing game one against Notre Dame with a groin injury.
“We treat every game the same way, don’t get me wrong. But when you listen to some of the things they were saying leading up to this game, they pushed some buttons they wish they (wouldn’t have) pushed,” said Clemson’s fifth-year linebacker after totaling five tackles, with a sack.
The Tigers tallied six sacks and 10 tackles for a loss and held the Irish to 44 rushing yards on 30 carries. The Irish entered the game No. 7 nationally in third-down conversion rate (51.4 percent) but went 3-of-12 on Saturday. They started 2-of-2.
Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book ran for at least 40 yards in the last eight games before facing Clemson again. He accounted for minus-35 yards on 10 attempts this time. The Tigers sent pressure via exotic blitzes and mostly contained Book in the pocket.
Book finished 20-of-28 for 219 passing yards.
“That guy is a really good player, and he is a nightmare,” Swinney said. “To sack him six times and really have a couple more opportunities, just relentless effort and pursuit. Great preparation and execution.”
Swinney told reporters during his postgame press conference that Notre Dame deserves to be in the College Football Playoff.
“Because they are 10‐1,” Swinney said. “They played 11 games. They lost to Clemson, all right? They stepped in the ring with Clemson twice and won one the last one. And it obviously didn't go their way tonight, but that's football. They played 11 games. And they deserve to be in, no doubt about that.
“No way would I punish someone for playing more games. That's what we seem to be doing — we're working to play less games and punish people for playing more. And I don't get that. There's no doubt in my mind Notre Dame should be in.”
The final rankings from the CFP selection committee will be released via the College Football Playoff Selection Show on Sunday. ESPN will start the broadcast at noon EST.
Alabama (11-0) and Clemson are expected to claim the top spots. Ohio State (6-0), Notre Dame, Texas A&M (8-1), Cincinnati (9-0) and Oklahoma (8-2) could compete for the final two positions.
• With the loss, the nation's longest active winning streak by ND was snapped at 16 games.
• The Tigers built a 24-3 halftime lead after outscoring the Irish 17-0 in the second quarter. Notre Dame outscored its previous 10 opponents this season by a combined 141-35 in the second quarter.
• Book (701) leaped over Jimmy Clausen (695) into second place all-time among Irish quarterbacks in career completions. He’s now behind only Brady Quinn (929).
• Michael Mayer (35) has the most receptions for a true freshman tight end in Notre Dame history. He ranks No. 10 all-time in single-season catches among Irish tight ends.
• Notre Dame sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton recorded his first interception of the season.
• Irish placekicker Jonathan Doerer’s 51-yard field goal set an ACC Championship Game record. Virginia Tech’s Dustin Keys set the previous record with a 50-yard field goal in 2008.