Notre Dame CB Julian Love leaves Clemson loss, 2018 with sour taste in his mouth
ARLINGTON, Texas — By the time Julian Love returned to action from a head injury Saturday, it was clear how much the nation’s No. 2 pass-efficiency defense depended on its All-America cornerback.
It was also apparent that the damage on the scoreboard to No. 3 Notre Dame was irreversible in the Cotton Bowl/College Football Playoff Semifinal at AT&T Stadium.
Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence consistently found the soft spot in the Irish defense with Love on the sideline for much of the first half, with the No. 2 Tigers exploding for 20 second-quarter points in mauling ND, 30-3.
The first-ever playoff appearance for the Irish (12-1) ends with the program’s eighth successive January loss to a top 10 team, with the last win in such a game coming in the Cotton Bowl 25 seasons ago. Playoff regular Clemson (14-0) moves into the CFP National Championship Game against No. 1 Alabama (14-0), Jan. 7 at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.
“We have to be good enough that we can overcome the loss of one player,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “Clemson was able to overcome the loss of a great defensive lineman (Dexter Lawrence). We have to be able to overcome the loss of a really good player, and that’s the bottom line. “
Love, a junior who left in the first quarter, returned for the first series of the second half, but the Irish were down 23-3 by that time. Georgia owns the largest comeback in CFP history, rallying from a 17-point deficit in a 54-48 victory over Oklahoma last season.
“He did not pass part of his protocol, which was memory,” said Kelly, who clarified that Love passed the full protocol later.
Enter Donte Vaughn, a fellow junior, who endured a nightmarish second quarter, allowing two touchdowns and contributing to a third.
The 5-foot-11, 193-pound Love allowed one touchdown reception this season — a four-yard score from Stanford's JJ Arcega-Whiteside in a 38-17 Irish victory on Sept. 29. The Tigers tested Vaughn deep and often, isolating their tall receivers on 6-3, 211-pounder.
"I have to make plays," Vaughn said. "I just have to step in there and make those plays that need to be made."
On Vaughn’s second series, Clemson’s fourth possession of the game, Lawrence connected with receiver Justyn Ross for a 52-yard score. Vaughn failed to wrap up Ross before the freshman trotted into the end zone.
Two series later, the Tigers capitalized on a Vaughn defensive holding penalty by connecting with Ross again on a 42-yard scoring play. Ross, who had eclipsed 76 yards once this season, caught six passes for 148 yards against the Irish.
Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow’s 32-yard reception, followed by ND defensive tackle Jerry Tillery’s roughing-the-passer penalty, set up another score at the expense of Vaughn. Lawrence connected with receiver Tee Higgins for a 19-yard touchdown with two seconds remaining in the half, though Vaughn did have tight coverage on the play.
"I knew it was a fade (route)," said Vaughn of the play. "I turned my head around and knocked the ball out, but he made a great catch."
“On defense, we said all season, ‘It is not about who we play, it is about what we do,' " Love said. “That has led us to be successful for the whole, entire year. And today, we got away from that. We got away from what we were doing.
“We have played big receivers before. We play a variety of different types of receivers. It was just being our best in our scheme. And that’s what we failed at tonight. It was not necessarily what they were doing. It was a lack of attention on our part.”
Love did not appear to suffer a visible injury on the field in the first quarter. However, he entered the blue medical tent following Clemson’s second possession. He reappeared much later on the Irish sideline, to stretch and ride the stationary bike before Vaughn’s fifth and final series.
Lawrence, a true freshman, went 15-of-18 for 244 yards with three touchdowns in the five series Vaughn was in for Love. In Lawrence’s six series with Love in the game, he completed 12-of-21 passes for 83 yards.
“When you are in this game, you have got to be able to overcome the loss of key players. And that means from a coaching standpoint and a playing standpoint,” Kelly said. “The players have got to make plays, and coaches have to put players in a position to make plays.
“And that’s just being real. So this is about coaching and players. In these games, when you lose key players, coaches have got to step up and players have got to step up.”
According to the Athletic’s Pete Sampson, Vaughn had allowed 16 receptions across 21 targets heading into Saturday, the worst catch percentage on the Irish defense coming into the game.
Irish free safety Alohi Gilman remained busy on the back end during Love’s absence, recording 13 of his CFP-record 18 tackles in the first half. Tiger running back Travis Etienne ran for a 62-yard score in the third quarter and amassed 109 yards on 14 carries.
Love enters the offseason with no Thorpe Award, no unanimous All-America status and no national title. But Love, who received a projected second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board in early December, does have the option to return to the Irish for 2019.
The sour taste of close but not enough may be what brings him back.
“It hurts,” Love said. “It was hurting me internally because I, obviously, wanted to be out there. I wanted to help our team. And in a sense, I let them down in that regard. So I tried to do what I could in the second half, but it definitely did not feel good.”