Five defining plays from Notre Dame's loss to Clemson

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Each mistake can be the one that decides a close game. With the margin for error so slim in a matchup of two talented teams, mistakes dictated the outcome of Clemson-Notre Dame. Here’s my take on the five defining plays from Notre Dame’s loss.

1. Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer is stopped short of the goal line on game-tying, two-point conversion attempt with seven seconds left in the game.

Head coach Brian Kelly said he gave Kizer the option to pass or run depending on the defensive look and that the redshirt freshman quarterback made the right decision. But the right decision didn’t lead to the intended outcome for the Irish. Many will question whether the two plays were the right ones given to Kizer, but he did appear to make the right decision to run the ball.

Clemson only had six defenders in the box against Notre Dame’s eight offensive players, including Kizer, which should lead to success on a three-yard play. The play call appears to incorporate a zone-blocking scheme up front with running back C.J. Prosise leading Kizer through the hole. But the execution of the plan fell through when Clemson defensive tackle Carlos Watkins and linebacker Ben Boulware crashed into the crease from the inside and linebacker Travis Blanks did the same from the outside.

If the play developed on the inside, Blanks likely can’t make a play. But Kizer couldn’t squeeze inside because of the presence of Watkins, who fought off right guard Steve Elmer and center Nick Martin to affect the play. Neither Elmer nor Martin stopped Watkins from washing down into the hole. It was either poor double-team help from Elmer or Martin didn’t take over the block quickly enough. With Prosise running through to block Boulware, a matchup Boulware won, it appears that Elmer could have turned inside to better cut-off Watkins because every other defender in the box was accounted for.

Regardless of who was at fault, when the game was on the line, Notre Dame didn’t win at the point of attack.

2. Notre Dame fails a two-point conversion with 14:13 left in the game and the Irish trailing 21-9.

So much went wrong on this one play for the Irish. It started with a miscommunication between the Notre Dame coaching staff and the players. While C.J. Prosise’s touchdown reception was being reviewed, kicker Justin Yoon and the field goal team were waiting on the field for the extra point. Then after the touchdown ruling was confirmed, the Irish rushed their offense out onto the field. Kelly said after the game he wanted to cut the deficit to 10, which requires a touchdown and field goal to tie the game rather than needing two touchdowns to overcome an 11-point margin. One problem: only 10 players lined up for the offense.

Notre Dame had to take a timeout because it was missing a wide receiver — likely Corey Robinson. Robinson joined the offense following the timeout and was sent in motion from the right to the left of the formation. Robinson found an opening in the secondary in the end zone, but was unable to haul in the high pass from Kizer. The pass was within Robinson’s reach as he leaped into the air, but flew right between his extended hands.

The debate of whether Notre Dame should have gone for two in the first place likely won’t be settled, but the Irish failed to execute in more ways than one.

3. Notre Dame freshman C.J. Sanders fumbles the opening kick return of the second half and gives the ball to Clemson.

Sanders made his debut as a college kick returner one week after returning a punt for a touchdown against UMass. Sanders showed why he replaced kick returner Amir Carlisle when he ripped off a 46-yard return in the first quarter. But his fumble to start the second half led to a Clemson touchdown on the ensuing drive when the Irish needed to regain momentum.

Sanders lost the ball when Clemson kicker Ammon Lakip’s helmet hit it out of his arm. Clemson’s C.J. Fuller recovered the fumble. The Irish kept Sanders in the game as the kick returner, but more mistakes could force Notre Dame’s coaching staff to rethink if his big-play ability is worth a turnover liability.

4. Clemson wide receiver Artavis Scott bounces off two Notre Dame defenders to score on a 13-yard touchdown reception to put the Tigers up 14-0 early in the first quarter.

Notre Dame cornerback Cole Luke and safety Elijah Shumate were both in position to tackle Scott inside the five-yard line. Instead, Scott remained standing after Shumate collided with him and left both Irish defenders on the ground. Scott scored and gave Memorial Stadium plenty to cheer about before Notre Dame could find any momentum.

The play signified the terrible start for Notre Dame’s defense: allowing two touchdowns on Clemson’s first two possessions. Quarterback Deshaun Watson beat the defense with his legs and his arm on the first two drives with 41 rushing yards and two touchdown passes. The Irish were left trying to make a comeback for the remainder of the game.

5. Clemson kicker Greg Huegel misses a 45-yard field goal wide left with 4:29 left in the game.

The Tigers could have put the game out of reach after Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer threw an interception with 6:36 left at the Irish 35-yard line, but Clemson failed to convert the possession into points. The Notre Dame defense made an important stop to limit the Tigers to a field goal attempt, but if Huegel made the kick it would have pushed the lead to two possessions.

Notre Dame managed to put together two drives with chances to send the game to overtime as a result of Huegel’s missed kick.

tjames@ndinsider.com

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Twitter: @TJamesNDI

Notre Dame’s Corey Robinson (88) misses a pass next to Clemson’s Cordrea Tankersley (25) 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