Clemson steals victory, Irish identity in 24-22 survival

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

CLEMSON, S.C. — The lingering sting from Notre Dame’s unraveling in the rain Saturday night wasn’t just that its playoff profile now has tread marks on it, but the identity theft that took place along the way.

Clemson defrocked the nation’s 12th-most potent running game and the bullying offensive line that was both its literal and symbolic catalyst in what turned out to be a 24-22 thriller at Death Valley that catapults the Tigers now into the national title contender conversation.

The solace for the sixth-ranked Irish (4-1) is that quarterback DeShone Kizer grew up along the way. Big time.

The redshirt freshman helped the Irish overcome a skittish start, four turnovers and an 18-point, fourth-quarter chasm to give ND a shot at overtime with seven seconds left in regulation.

But his attempt at a tying two-point conversion run was snuffed by Clemson defensive tackle Carlos Watkins two yards short of a quasi-miracle. A few moments and a fizzled onside kick later, the Memorial Stadium crowd spilled onto the saturated grass to celebrate the 12th-ranked Tigers’ 4-0 start.

"We're not here from moral victories," Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly said. "We're too far along in our program. We have to beat Clemson.

"I was disappointed for them that they didn't seize the opportunity they had. And that was to come down here and play a very good team in a difficult atmosphere, in very difficult conditions. And they easily — if they take care of the football and start fast — are going to win the football game, in my estimation. But started slow and turned the ball over four times." 

In the end, Kizer was the more dynamic of the two quarterbacking DeShones/Deshauns. He threw for 321 yards against the nation’s No. 3 defense against the pass, completing 19 of 34 with two touchdowns, including a one-yarder to Torii Hunter Jr. on a fade rout on ND’s final offensive play from scrimmage.

His lone interception, with about six and a half minutes left seemingly buried ND’s chances for a comeback, but Clemson kicker Greg Huegel pushed a 45-yard field goal left in the following possession.

Kizer quickly got the Irish within striking distance, but South Carolinian Chris Brown, trying to wiggle for a first down inside the Clemson 5 had the ball knocked loose by safety Jayron Kearse with linebacker B.J. Goodson — the same player who picked off Kizer on the previous possession — recovering at the 4.

ND used its two remaining timeouts and a stout defensive push and got the ball back one more time. The Irish just couldn’t quite finish.

“I’m proud of the way he competed.,” Kelly said of Kizer in career start No. 3. “I certainly think he played well enough for us to win.”

Unbeaten Navy (4-0) rolls in next Saturday for a little triple-option redux, followed by arch-rival USC as the Irish will try to regain their footing.

Clemson won for the 42nd time in 48 home games under head coach Dabo Swinney, who’s now 38-4 in games in which his Tigers win the turnover battle. Had the Irish rallied, it would have been the first time in Swinney’s last 41 games at Clemson that the Tigers couldn’t hold a fourth-quarter lead.

And Clemson led almost from the start.

ND’s Brian VanGorder was the last opposing defensive coordinator to shut out the Tigers, 30-0, 12 years ago when coordinating Georgia’s defense. A possible reprise lasted all of 161 seconds as Clemson eased 64 yards on seven plays to make it 7-0, then scored on their next possession to make it 14-0.

Justin Yoon’s 46-yard field goal in the first quarter cut the lead to 14-3. Clemson, though, blew it out to a 21-3 command early in the third quarter after freshman C.J. Sanders fumbled the opening kick of the half.

“We can’t go on the road and be tentative defensively to start a game,” Kelly said. “We have to get off to a good start.

“After that, however, we played the kind of defense we expected to play here and played well enough defensively after that first quarter if you don’t have four turnovers.”

A team that was looking to be the first Irish squad since the 1943 national champs to rip off five straight games of 30 points or more out of the gate, never really got its running game in a rhythm. Kizer was ND’s most consistent run threat, rushing for 60 yards on 15 carries and a TD.

Clemson bottled up C.J. Prosise, the nation’s fifth-leading rusher, for much of the game. He finished with a season-low 50 yards on 15 carries – 100 yards fewer than his average. But he did come alive late in the passing game, with four receptions for 100 yards, including a 56-yard scoring catch that helped pull the Irish back into contention.

It was the first time since 1987 that both Clemson and Notre Dame entered October with an undefeated record and the Irish figured to be the more tested team or at least the more clearly defined. But until the fourth quarter, it was Clemson’s inexperienced offensive line – with no healthy starters returning from last season that made the better impression early in the trenches.

Clemson also had lost its offensive coordinator, Chad Morris (to SMU), in the offseason and its Will Fuller-esque field-stretching receiver, in Mike Williams, in its season opener.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @EHansenNDI

Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer (14) helped the Irish rally from a 21-3 deficit in the fourth-quarter, but ND fell short, 24-22, to Clemson on a failed two-point conversion try Saturday at Clemson, S.C. (SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)