Which way will Notre Dame go from here?

Al Lesar
South Bend Tribune

CLEMSON, S.C. – Two points never seemed so far away.

Clemson’s Carlos Watkins blew up the play and Notre Dame’s season with 7 seconds left Saturday night.

Down by 18 points after three quarters, the Irish did what they had to do to make up for 45 minutes of transgressions.

Almost.

After being creative in a last-minute drive that got Notre Dame to within two points, the Irish went with a run by quarterback DeShone Kizer in the middle of the Clemson defense that was stuffed by Watkins before it even had a chance to develop.

What gives?

“It was a run/pass option,” Kizer said. “At that time, it’s man vs. man; heart vs. heart. We didn’t get the drive we were supposed to get. I didn’t lower my shoulder the way I was supposed to. We didn’t get the three yards we needed.”

“The numbers were right,” said Irish coach Brian Kelly, who explained what Kizer was looking for at the line of scrimmage. “He made the right call (with the run).”

Death Valley is the place where playoff dreams go to die.

At least they did Saturday night.

Since gathering in August, the Notre Dame football team considered itself a contender for a spot in college football’s playoff.

Clemson, with its 24-22 win, showed the Irish just how far they were from being legitimate.

Forget the crowd that was loud and involved on every snap. Forget the relentless torrential rain that got worse as the game went on (it should have been played at noon). The only state of emergency that mattered Saturday night was the one on the Notre Dame sidelines.

Until a frantic fourth quarter, the Irish were outplayed and outmuscled. Intimidated and overwhelmed.

Can’t spot Clemson 14 points and play uphill all night. That’s a slippery slope. 

Can’t have crowd-induced penalties on three successive attempts to snap – two delays and a false start.

Can’t fumble the opening kickoff of the second half.

Can’t have Kizer, down by eight in the fourth quarter, have C.J. Prosise all by himself in the flat – no defender within 15 yards of him – throw an interception with his eyes locked on Chris Brown down the middle.

Can’t have Brown fumble the ball inside the Clemson 5 with a chance to tie the game in the final minutes.

All the rain and wind and noise and attention in the world doesn’t cause that.

In spite of the litany of problems, the Irish still had a chance.

Three sticky fingered receivers – Will Fuller, Corey Robinson and Torii Hunter, Jr., all had drops.

The Tigers devoured Fuller with their coverage, taking him all but out of the game. The concept is, when that happens, other receivers and the Irish running game is supposed to open up.

Didn’t happen ‘til the fourth quarter, when the Irish made a game of it before one last mistake – Brown’s fumble – doomed them.

This was supposed to an opportunity for the crack-proof Irish offensive line to take over the game. Never happened. Clemson won the war in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

Obviously, the stage was too big for Notre Dame. Too bad. 

The Irish are loaded with veterans. This was their year. They were supposed to embrace the attention. Big game? No big deal. Bring it on.

Clemson did. And the Irish limped home with a mission of re-framing the trajectory of their season while trying to avoid the free-fall that happened after last year’s loss to Florida State.

Remember that? Yyyyyyuck.

It’s not going to be easy. No time to mourn the opportunity that slipped away, or the wallow in the despair of so many mistakes.

Navy won’t have a bit of sympathy. Only one team will be unbeaten next Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium, and it won’t be the Irish. After figuring out Georgia Tech’s triple option a couple weeks ago, it will take a whole new game plan for the Midshipmen.

Then, there’s Southern Cal in two weeks. It won’t take much for this season to go south in a hurry.

Since early August, Kelly has talked about the leadership of his team. Well, now, it’s time to see that leadership in action. The goals have changed. It’s easy to lead an undefeated team. Now comes the adversity. How will the Irish respond?

Maintain focus? Or, pack it in?

“New year. Last year doesn’t matter,” said Irish center Nick Martin. “We go forward. It was a hard loss, but we have to move forward. We have Navy next week.”

It will take some serious attitude adjustment. Notre Dame is coming off an effort that didn’t happen in a hurry. Like the rain, the downfall started early and kept getting worse.

Just over six minutes of misery defined the first half for Notre Dame.

Before the raucous Clemson student section had an opportunity to fill in the orange sea that was parted to allow the Tiger players to touch Howard’s Rock and sprint down the Hill, the Irish were trailing by double digits.

In the blink of an eye, Watson shredded Notre Dame’s defense for a 38-yard run and two touchdown passes. The Irish were stunned. Get the license plate of that truck. Deer in headlights. Pick the metaphor. That’s 104 yards and 14 points in just over six minutes.

Who were those guys wearing the white jerseys? 

Surely it wasn’t the same team that had victorious – and at times, downright impressive – four times already this season. 

“We started out too flat,” said Notre Dame defensive lineman Sheldon Day. “We have to come out and hit them in the mouth. We didn’t do that today.”

“We were tentative, poor tackling, we weren’t triggering,” said Kelly. “There are no moral victories. We have to get off to a good start.”

-- An offensive line that had been dominant was somewhere between average and porous. 

-- Sure-handed receiver Fuller let the slippery pig slide right through his hands. 

-- Another big-time pass-catcher Robinson, the guy with an amazing catching radius, didn’t hold onto a perfectly-placed long ball into the end zone.

-- A Notre Dame team rooted in poise and confidence was intimidated by the loud crowd. Three straight penalties – two delays sandwiching a false start – gave an indication the Irish might be vulnerable.

That was just one of the problems.

Notre Dame’s Corey Robinson (88) exits the field following the 24-22 loss to Clemson on Sunday, Oct. 3, 2015, Memorial Stadium at Clemson University in Clemson, SC. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN