Abysmal opening quarter proves too much for Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

CLEMSON, S.C. — As the rain cascaded in perpetual waves onto the Memorial Stadium grass on Saturday, President Barack Obama declared a state of emergency in South Carolina.

He might as well have been referring directly to Notre Dame.

As the waterlogged Irish struggled through a one-sided and ultimately fatal opening quarter, a ravenous home crowd remained on its feet. The student section, occupying every inch of a muddy hill, was standing. The students in fogged-up scuba masks were standing. The kid dressed as the Pope, wearing progressively soggier robes, was standing. They were standing in hard hats and gaudy wigs, in ponchos and garbage bags.

They were standing, they were screaming, and Memorial Stadium was rocking.

And soon, the Clemson flags were waving, too.

The Tigers scored 14 points in the first six minutes and 17 seconds of an eventual 24-22 victory, stacking up back-to-back Deshaun Watson touchdown passes as the Irish gasped for air. After Notre Dame won the opening toss and deferred to the second half, Clemson marched 64 yards in seven plays, the highlight being Watson’s 38-yard keeper on the Tigers’ first offensive snap. Tight end Jordan Leggett capped the drive with a hurdle into the end zone for a six-yard score, then seven Clemson fans in damp orange overalls got to work, manically waving oversized flags — one for each letter in C-L-E-M-S-O-N.

Three underwhelming Notre Dame run plays later, punter Tyler Newsome mangled his first punt of the evening, sending a wounded football careening off the side of his foot and into the stands — a disastrous 15-yard net.

More standing. More screaming.

Soon, more waving.

Clemson needed just four plays to travel 40 yards in its second drive, the largest chunks coming on the strength of Watson’s arm. The transcendent sophomore completed a 24-yard pass down the right sideline to wide receiver Hunter Renfrow, who was quickly gobbled up by senior cornerback KeiVarae Russell. Two plays later, Watson hit a slant to Artavis Scott, who pinballed off of Cole Luke and bounded into the end zone.

It took seven minutes, three drives and 14 points to wake Notre Dame.

“Give credit to Clemson,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “They came out fresh and aggressive and made things difficult for us early on. I thought we settled in in the second half better, but certainly they carried the play in the first half.”

Unfortunately for the Irish, the numbers go even deeper. In the first quarter on Saturday, Clemson out-gained Notre Dame 116 to 50. Notre Dame rushed for just 22 yards, and senior C.J. Prosise — who entered the game with 600 rushing yards, more than any other player through four games in school history — lost five yards in the quarter. The Irish averaged 2.2 yards per rush and 2.9 yards per play. DeShone Kizer passed for just 28 yards. Newsome managed 25.5 yards per punt.

Watson, meanwhile, threw for 52 yards and two touchdowns, and ran for another 50 yards.

"We started poorly defensively," Kelly said. "We were tentative. Poor tackling. We weren't triggering. Our kicking game did not help. We gave them a short field with a poor punt. But there are no moral victories, and we can't go on the road and be tentative defensively to start a game."

Of course, the game didn’t technically end when the opening quarter did. The teams played a scoreless second frame, before back-to-back lost fumbles by C.J. Sanders and Prosise shifted momentum out of halftime. Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and Torii Hunter Jr. each dropped passes. Notre Dame rebounded in a big way late, scoring three fourth quarter touchdowns to narrow the deficit to two.

But it wasn’t enough. Kizer was stopped short of the goal line on a two-point conversion attempt in the final minute and a frantic comeback fell agonizingly short.

In a season rife with adversity, a slow start provided too deep a ditch for the Irish to overcome.

"We just came out too flat," senior defensive tackle Sheldon Day said. "Coach Kelly always tells us to start fast and come out hitting them in the mouth. We just didn't do that today."

Clemson’s Jordan Leggett (16) leaps over Notre Dame’s Cole Luke (36) as he dives into the end zone during the Notre Dame-Clemson NCAA football game on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2015, Memorial Stadium at Clemson University in Clemson, SC. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN