Notre Dame can't stick the landing against Clemson in College Football Playoff

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

ARLINGTON, Texas — Clark the bald eagle had a bad day.

After circling AT&T Stadium during the national anthem, the bird was supposed to land in the Notre Dame end zone. Instead, it landed on the back of a Notre Dame fan in the stands. Clark took flight again and landed on the arm of another Notre Dame fan.

Clark was clearly lost, but the bird’s mishaps were nothing compared to Notre Dame’s football team. There were no handlers available to rescue the Irish in a 30-3 loss to Clemson in the Cotton Bowl’s College Football Playoff semifinal.

Clark’s flight started out fine. It majestically circled the stadium as it was trained. The bird looked like it belonged.

No. 3 Notre Dame (12-1) didn’t look out of place at the start, either. The Irish played the No. 2 Tigers (14-0) to a 3-3 tie through the first quarter, despite a fumble by quarterback Ian Book.

Notre Dame’s defense kept Clemson’s offense bottled up through 15 minutes. The Irish even outgained the Tigers by an 85-45 yard margin. Then the game took a wrong turn in the second quarter for the Irish, and the Tigers didn’t give them a safe place to land.

Quarterback Trevor Lawrence torched Notre Dame with three touchdowns passes to give Clemson a 23-3 lead at halftime. The final score of the half came with just two seconds left when wide receiver Tee Higgins pulled in a pass deflected by cornerback Donte Vaughn for a 19-yard touchdown.

Vaughn entered the game for cornerback Julian Love, who exited in the first quarter with a head injury. Head coach Brian Kelly said Love wasn’t able to return to the game until the second half when he cleared all the stages of concussion protocol.

The damage already had been done by Clemson’s offense. The Tigers scored its first touchdown by picking on Vaughn, a 6-foot-3, 211-pound junior. Clemson’s Justyn Ross beat Vaughn deep for a 52-yard touchdown to put the Tigers up 9-3 following a blocked extra point by Notre Dame defensive tackle Jerry Tillery.

"That was the spark that we needed," said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney. "And the big plays were definitely the difference in the game.

"Notre Dame came into this game hardly giving up any big plays, and we were one of the leaders in the country in big plays. So really proud of Trevor and his poise and how he managed the game the whole way through."

Lawrence found Ross later in the second quarter for a 42-yard touchdown pass. Ross beat safety Alohi Gilman down the seam with no one else around to help. Losing Love was too much for the Irish secondary to overcome.

“A guy like that, an All-American, Julian Love, it’s hard to replace him,” said Gilman, who set a College Football Playoff record with 18 tackles. “At the same time, we still had some confidence in Donte. That’s my guy. I’m going to ride with him forever. But Julian’s Julian. It’s hard to replace someone like that.”

Clemson all but finished the Irish in the third quarter when running back Travis Etienne broke free for a 62-yard run on third-and-1. Etienne ran through a wide-open hole in the middle of the field and beat safety Jalen Elliott in a race down the sideline to extend the lead to 30-3 with 2:04 left in the quarter.

“The running play was just a complete bust on our part,” said linebacker Drue Tranquill. “We completely missed an assignment. My grandmother could have run through that hole. They’re a great football team. None of that is to slight them at all.”

Tranquill said he didn’t feel like the Irish were outmatched in any physical sense against Clemson. Mental lapses and close plays did them in.

“It was a lack of execution more than anything,” Tranquill said. “Guys were in position on big-play opportunities down the field and their receiver made the play instead of us. We misfit a gap and allowed their running back to put the game away and go 50 yards to the house. That’s pretty much the story of the game.”

Lawrence finished 27-of-39 passing for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Ross led the receivers with six catches for 148 yards and two touchdowns. Etienne provided the spark in the running game with 109 yards and one touchdown.

Lawrence was at his best when Love wasn't in the game. He completed 15 of his 18 passes for 244 yards and three touchdowns with Love sidelined. He only completed 12 of his 21 attempts for 83 yards with Love on the field.

“It was hurting me internally, because I obviously wanted to be out there,” Love said. “I wanted to help our team. And in a sense, I let them down in that regard.”

Lawrence became just the second player to pass for at least 300 yards and three touchdowns in a College Football Playoff game. Former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson did it twice. Lawrence did so by beating Notre Dame deep for scores. The Irish hadn't allowed a touchdown pass of more than 27 yards all season before Saturday.

“We gave up four big plays,” Kelly said. “Clemson was extremely smart and opportunistic in taking advantage of some things schematically (Saturday). They did a great job of pushing the ball vertically in some opportunistic situations.

“And offensively we struggled moving the football today. So those were technical and tactical. I did not feel like there was an overwhelming difference in terms of talent. They have extremely talented players.’’

Clemson’s defense limited the Irish to just 88 rushing yards with Dexter Williams accounting for 54 of them. The Tigers put pressure on Book and sacked him six times, with defensive end Austin Bryant recording two sacks. Book threw for 160 yards on 17-of-34 passing with one interception in the third quarter.

The Tigers held Notre Dame to a season-low 248 yards. The three points scored by the Irish is the lowest output in all 38 of Notre Dame's bowl appearances. The Irish hadn't been held without a touchdown in any game since the 10-3 loss to N.C. State in October 2016.

“They’re everything I thought and more,” Mustipher said of the Clemson defensive line. “They’re a talented front, physical front. Those guys get after it. What’s the most impressive thing about them is those guys are so smart.

"They know how to use their hands and get off blocks. You combine that with the athleticism they have, that’s what makes them special.”

Notre Dame ended up on the wrong side of four overturned replay reviews. The first overturned replay gave Clemson the ball when Book fumbled near midfield on the first play of Notre Dame’s second drive of the game.

The most painful reversal may have been the next one in the first quarter when a Clemson fumble on a kick return recovered by Notre Dame was overturned when officials determined the ball hit out of bounds before it was recovered by the Irish.

The Irish were also on the losing end of overturned calls on an Alizé Mack catch and an Asmar Bilal interception. Both plays were ruled as incomplete passes following replay.

But Notre Dame needed to overcome those calls with big plays. Those never materialized. Once again, the Irish fell short on a national stage. How the program responds will dictate if Notre Dame truly belongs.

"I felt like we were good enough to win, but there was no doubt in my mind Notre Dame is good enough to beat us," said Swinney. "We were going to have to play well, and we played well."

His Clemson team will take on No. 1 Alabama (14-0) in the CFP Championship Game on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif., playing each other for a title for the third time in its five-year history. The Crimson Tide rolled past No. 4 Oklahoma 45-34 in Miami Gardens, Fla., later Saturday night.

Back in South Bend, the Irish have to learn how to stick the landing.

“We’re in here licking our wounds after being one of the four teams,” Kelly said. “That’s a good place to kind of restock and get stronger from it. We’ll get better because of this.

“Losing gives you perspective. It’s not great. No one ever likes to go through losing to gain perspective. Our guys saw that they could win a game like this, and we’ll go to work on that.”

Notre Dame’s Alohi Gilman kneels down after Notre Dame lost to Clemson in the Cotton Bowl Saturday at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (99) is Notre Dame’s top prospect in this week’s NFL Draft.