Hansen: More than a Notre Dame moment, upset of No. 1 Clemson needs to lead to next step

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Avery Davis’ dreams have been rerouted and contorted so many times, it’s only fitting that when he finally stepped into them late Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium, there was some physical pain involved.

Two overtime periods after his game-saving, 53-yard catch set up his game-tying, four-yard TD reception, Davis found himself in a celebratory mosh pit for the ages.

“The fans storming the field was crazy,” the former Irish quarterback, cornerback and running back and current wide receiver said of the aftermath of fourth-ranked Notre Dame’s first takedown of a No. 1 team in 27 years, a 47-40 toppling of Clemson in double-overtime.

“It’s different when you see it in the movies. But when you are in there, it’s kind of weird. I was getting bumped around and stuff. But I loved the energy, so it was pretty awesome at the same time.

“This is a game that is literally going to live on forever. We just made history.”

The best kind of history, the kind of moments that never fade, are the ones that represent an evolutionary step.

Saturday’s extending of the nation’s longest active winning streak to 13 games and ND’s home win string of victories to 23 broke a run of 10 successive losses by the Irish to top five teams. Five of those had occurred under 11th-year head coach Brian Kelly’s watch.

In the post-Lou Holtz Era (1997-present), Holtz successor Bob Davie won his first, a 36-20 upset of No. 5 Michigan to start the 1998 season. Then he, Tyrone Willingham, Charlie Weis and Kelly combined to go 1-18 thereafter.

Until Saturday.

“We're not celebrating because we showed the world or we changed the narrative or did this because they were the No. 1 team in the country,” Kelly said. “We did it because we proved something to ourselves, and that's really satisfying and that's what we're celebrating.”

Holtz himself was 13-8 against the top five during his 11 seasons at ND (1986-96), but he lost his first four.

It was a 31-30 upending of top-ranked Miami (Fla.) in game six of 1988 in another 4-vs.-1 matchup that went beyond a special day and became the building block for a special, six-year dominant run by the Irish.

Notre Dame would go on to beat two more top five teams that season, USC and West Virginia, to capture the school’s most recent national title.

This Irish team (7-0, 6-0 ACC) would likely have to beat three more top five teams this season if they want their season to finish the same. That would include Clemson (7-1, 6-1 ACC) in the ACC Championship Game Dec. 19 in Charlotte, N.C., provided the Tigers don’t slip up against their three remaining regular-season opponents.

All three are unranked, and probably the toughest of those — Virginia Tech — lost Saturday at home to Liberty.

The next of four remaining regular-season games for the Irish, meanwhile, starts with a trip next Saturday to meet up with former ND backup quarterback Phil Jurkovec and the Boston College Eagles (5-3, 4-3 ACC).

“We got so much more work to do and — look — BC is going to be a challenge for us,” Kelly said when pressed whether he had just witnessed two potential playoff teams squaring off at Notre Dame Stadium Saturday night.

“I've got to get this football team back up, emotionally ready to play BC. We've got a target on our backs now. There are so many more things on my plate relative to what I have to do than really concern myself with playoffs and who is in and who is not in.

“There are other people that will do that, because the real challenge now is to keep this football team accelerating.”

He’s right. If a special night is going to morph into a season to remember, Notre Dame must be a better team in late November into December than it was against Clemson Saturday night.

Still there were people and numbers to behold.

Among them:

• Behind sophomore Kyren Williams’ 140 yards on 23 carries and three TDs, Notre Dame outrushed Clemson 209-34. That’s the sixth-fewest rushing yards allowed in a game in the Kelly Era.

The ACC’s all-time leading rusher, senior All-American Travie Etienne, was smothered to the tune of 28 yards on 18 carries, a career-low 1.6 yards per carry and lowest rushing total in a game in which he had 10 or more carries.

• Despite giving up more than 30 points for only the second time in Clark Lea’s 33 games as Irish defensive coordinator, the Notre Dame defensive came up big in big moments.

Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah led the way with nine tackles, including two for losses. He also plucked a loose ball out of the air, after it bounced off Etienne’s hands on an errant pitch, and returned it 23 yards for a TD and a 20-10 Irish lead with 5:53 left in the first half.

On Clemson’s next possession, he stripped the ball out of Tiger wide receiver Amari Rodgers’ hands, with ND cornerback Nick McCloud recovering it and the Irish cashing that in for a 45-yard Jonathan Doerer field goal and a 23-10 ND lead at the 2:41 mark of the second quarter.

Late in regulation, with Notre Dame down 33-26, an Irish drive stalled near midfield and Clemson took over on downs when a fourth-down pass glanced off receiver Ben Skowronek’s hands.

But the defense forced a three-and-out. ND got the ball back with 1:48 left and proceeded to go 91 yards on eight plays and 1:26 to tie the game at 33-33.

“I thought about it briefly,” Kelly said of the prospect of going for two after Davis’ TD catch with 22 seconds left in regulation. “We had a two-point play that was, we felt, a really good one.

“I thought about it. We had just worked too hard to get back into the game, and so it just didn't feel right to go for two there. But I did think about it.”

In the second overtime, with Notre Dame ahead, 47-40, Adetokunbo Ogundeji and Owusu-Koramoah combined to sack Clemson freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei for a nine-yard loss, followed by a five-yard sack by Daelin Hayes.

An incomplete pass on third-and-24 was followed by a benign 13-yard completion that ended up with a loose ball finding its way to McCloud again. Uiagalelei, filling in for All-American Trevor Lawrence (still in post-COVID-19 protocol), threw for an ND opponent-record 439 yards and 2 TDs in his second college start.

In the seconds that followed, it seemed like every one of the 11,011 spectators not wearing orange and purple spilled onto the field to revel like COVID-19 didn’t exist.

• Notre Dame went 10-for-19 on third down, compared with Clemson’s 4-of-15. At times it felt like Clemson’s offense moved the ball so effortlessly and explosively on first and second downs, and that Notre Dame’s was trying to execute death by paper cut.

Yet Notre Dame’s average yards per play was actually slightly better than Clemson’s (6.6 to 6.1).

“We struggled to contain their quarterback,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, who posed for a pic with the Knute Rockne statue Friday and showed his team “Rudy” as the Friday night pregame movie.

“He bought time and extended plays and made some big plays on some scrambles.”

Ah, that would be senior QB Ian Book, who threw for more than 300 yards, ran for 67 more on 14 carries and picked himself up after fumbling near the goal line late in the third quarter with the scored tied 23-23.

“Coach Kelly did an unbelievable job getting us ready this week,” Book said. “He told us — same with (offensive coordinator Tommy) Rees — this is a game that if you win, you will remember for the rest of your life. I kept telling myself that all day throughout every series.”

Now he wants more — the next evolutionary step and what that could turn into.

Notre Dame wide receiver Avery Davis (3) catches a pass against Clemson on Nov. 7.