Noie: More of the big-bowl same for Notre Dame

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

ARLINGTON, Texas — Intermission was closing quickly in an eventful but forgettable first half when sunshine peeked through the massive wall of glass windows on the west end of AT&T Stadium.

The glow illuminated a section of seats in the east end zone, where the Irish band was positioned, but darkness had long descended on Notre Dame’s fortunes in Saturday’s College Football Playoff semifinal against second-ranked Clemson.

On a day and in a year when the big stage was supposed to be different for the third-ranked Irish, it was more of the same. More long faces. More lopsided stats and final score. More cheering from the guys on the other sideline. More tears and soul-searching from the Irish.

Instead of advancing in its first semifinal visit to try and win its first national championship in 30 years, Notre Dame went quietly into the Metroplex night following a 30-3 loss.

“It’s tough, the amount of work you put in to get to this point and lose a game like that,’’ said wide receiver Miles Boykin. “We definitely felt like we had a lot more that we could have showed on this stage.”

A day that announced Notre Dame’s arrival onto the field with fireworks ended with another Irish fizzle. The second half should have been played with a running clock. This one couldn’t end soon enough.

More of the same? Not to Notre Dame.

“We were in that ball game,” said center Sam Mustipher. “We just had too many errors. It was nothing that they did. They did the little things right and we didn’t.”

This one got away early from the Irish. But did it?

“I wouldn’t call it getting away from us,” Mustipher said. “We were moving the ball downfield and then you’d have a false start, you’d have a turnover, you’d have a penalty. Things like that kill drives.

“Clemson was the more disciplined football team today and it showed.”

The curtain’s officially closed on a 12-1 season. The Irish did enough to deserve to be here. But a program with 11 national championships has to find a way to hit that next gear in post-season to ever reach the one goal outside of graduating its players, only one annual goal — win a national championship.

Good may be as good as it gets. Doesn’t matter the regular season or the head coach or the independence or the post-season opponent. For myriad reasons, Notre Dame again appeared incapable of playing with the elite of the elite. Clemson’s there. Has been for years. Notre Dame tries hard, makes a spirited run every few seasons, but just can’t get over a big-game hump that’s become more like a mountain.

In five previous BCS/New Year’s Day bowls — the big-boy bowls — Notre Dame was 0-5 with the losses by an average of 23.4 points. Make that 0-for-6 with an average margin of defeat of 28.5 points. The Irish will take all the Citrus and Music City and Pinstripe bowl trophies they can get. The other ones, apparently a little too heavy to hoist.

Eventually, that’s got to swing the other direction, doesn’t it?

Minutes before the third quarter started, the stadium sound system belted out “Livin’ on a Prayer” by Bon Jovi, the father of a Notre Dame graduate and former football player. The Irish, like the song says, were halfway there. But halfway toward heading for home. Prayers were about all they had left. None really would help.

Halftime became less about Xs and Os and more about playing the final two quarters of the season, and for some, their collegiate careers, with some pride. Don’t fumble the football. Don’t get tagged for a 15-yard roughing-the-passer penalty. Don’t let quarterback Trevor Lawrence do as he pleased in the pocket. Don’t allow the big play. Play smart football, football we’d seen from this team for the better part of 12 weeks of the regular season.

“You can’t have turnovers and mistakes,” Boykin said. “When you play a team as good as Clemson, you can’t make mistakes because they expose them. We made too many.”

This one was ugly. This one was one-sided. What this one was not was a referendum on how Notre Dame doesn’t ever deserve to have a seat at the College Football Playoff main table. No, the Irish shouldn’t be assigned to the kids’ table at important football functions. You don’t go undefeated against the schedule Notre Dame played without being good. Even really good. But not great.

Notre Dame seemingly stands further away from winning a national championship than it was in 1994, the last time it played a meaningful game in this region before Saturday. The Irish had fight and grit and everything else they’ve talked about for the last few months, but they just didn’t have enough talent. Elite talent. Championship talent.

Talent trumped traits. Or did it?

“We’re a lot better team than what we showed,” Boykin said.

Better, the Irish believe, than the 2012 team that played for a national championship.

“This is a completely different football team,” Mustipher said.

But championship teams play clean football, championship football when championship football is required. Notre Dame didn’t. Maybe next year.

“We’re going to be here next year,” promised safety Alohi Gilman. “We’re here to win a national championship. I’m already thinking about what we’ve gotta do to get back.”

Easy. Be great when great’s needed. Good doesn’t get it done.

Notre Dame’s Drue Tranquill (23) grimaces and grabs his helmet after ND's 30-3 loss to Clemson in the Cotton Bowl, Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.