Clemson regains ACC dominance with rematch revenge over Notre Dame

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The remains of orange and white confetti must be scattered throughout the depths of Bank of America Stadium.

For the fourth straight year in the home of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, the Clemson Tigers won the ACC Championship in lopsided fashion. On Saturday in Charlotte, N.C., Notre Dame became the latest victim in a 34-10 victory for the bullies of the ACC block.

The No. 2 Irish (10-1) suffered the same fate as Virginia, Pittsburgh and Miami in the previous three seasons at the hands of No. 3 Clemson (10-1), who has won six straight ACC championships with the first two coming in tighter contests and the 2016 victory coming in Orlando, Fla.

Notre Dame’s loss Saturday felt all too similar to its matchup with Clemson in the 2018 College Football Playoff semifinal. In both games, the Irish watched the game spin out of their control in the second quarter and couldn’t muster much of a comeback.

Again, Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence outdueled Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book as the Irish looked overwhelmed and the Tigers looked right at home. While Clemson’s playmakers rose to the occasion, Notre Dame shrank.

“We played an outstanding football team today, and because of it, we weren’t as consistent as a football team as we had been,” said Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly. “Very disappointed for our guys. Loved the way they battled in the second half, but again we let the second quarter get away from us, and that was the difference in the game.”

The second quarter had been the most successful quarter for Notre Dame all season long. The Irish outscored opponents 141-35 in the first 10 games, but were outdone by a 17-0 margin in the second quarter Saturday against Clemson.

Notre Dame looked sharp at the outset. The Irish picked up their first two third-down conversions on the opening drive with passes by Book to freshman tight end Michael Mayer. Then Book was sacked on third down in what would become a pattern. Jonathan Doerer hit an ACC Championship Game-record 51-yard field goal to give Notre Dame an early 3-0 lead.

Notre Dame’s defense even took care of business on Clemson’s first drive when safety Kyle Hamilton intercepted a Lawrence pass that was deflected by linebacker Drew White.

When Notre Dame’s red-zone woes returned on the ensuing drive — a first-and-goal from the 10 made way to an incomplete pass on third-and-goal from the six — it felt like a bad sign. Then Doerer doinked a chip shot from the 14-yard line off the right upright, and even the most optimistic Notre Dame fans had to fear what was coming next.

Clemson responded with a 67-yard touchdown pass from Lawrence to wide receiver Amari Rodgers to score the first of the next 34 points tallied in the game, which all belonged to Clemson.

The futility for Notre Dame extended beyond the second quarter, in which Clemson extended its lead to 24-3 with a 33-yard touchdown pass from Lawrence to wide receiver E.J. Williams, a 27-yard field goal by B.T. Potter and a 44-yard touchdown run by running back Travis Etienne.

The Irish failed on eight straight third-down attempts spanning from the first quarter to the fourth quarter, and Book was sacked six times. When Book tried to escape the Clemson pass rush, he consistently couldn’t find an open receiver or the time to get rid of it.

Book, who rushed for 67 yards against Clemson in November, totaled a net loss of 35 yards on the ground. He only rushed for positive yardage twice for a gain of 10 yards.

“They were much more in a contain mode to keep him from getting outside, and then did a nice job of minimizing his ability to get big-chunk runs,” Kelly said. “So trying to keep him at bay was obviously part of the game plan.”

Notre Dame didn’t have an answer for keeping Lawrence at bay. After missing the Nov. 7 matchup following a COVID-19 diagnosis, Lawrence showed the Irish the difference he could make in a Heisman Trophy audition.

“It would be a crying shame if the Heisman didn't attach their name to Trevor Lawrence,” said Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney while on the field for the postgame celebration.

Lawrence showed Saturday why he’s a virtual lock to be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. He finished 25-of-36 passing for 322 yards and two touchdowns and rushed 14 times for 90 yards and one touchdown two days before Heisman Trophy ballots are due.

“I hate to even have to campaign for him,” Swinney said, “but it's like, sometimes I think people just take him for granted, like it's just easy what he does. And it's unbelievable what he does.”

Lawrence had plenty of help Saturday. Etienne, who was limited to 28 rushing yards in the last ND matchup, broke loose for 124 yards and one touchdown. Rodgers led the Tigers with eight catches for 121 yards and one touchdown. Williams, who made a spectacular one-handed catch in the third quarter, caught four passes for 80 yards and one touchdown.

Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said the Irish lapses against the run were the product of performance rather than flaws in the scheme designed by defensive coordinator Clark Lea.

“It was more of us just executing and playing what coach Lea calls,” Owusu-Koramaoh said. “People want to do something that’s not in their range. Me for an example, there were so many plays I didn’t do my own job. There are 11 players on the field, and each player has to focus on their job. We didn’t do that to the best of our ability (Saturday).”

Hamilton, who left the game with an apparent injury to his right leg in the third quarter, led the Irish with 10 tackles. Fellow safety Shaun Crawford had eight tackles. Owusu-Koramoah finished with seven tackles including two tackles for a loss.

Notre Dame failed to establish much of a running game of its own. Running back Kyren Williams led the way with 15 carries for 50 yards. The next two leading rushers each only had one carry: backup running back Chris Tyree with his 21-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter with the Irish trailing 34-3 and wide receiver Avery Davis with his 18-yard jet sweep on the final play of the first quarter.

Book couldn’t put the offense on his shoulders with a relentless Clemson pass rush imposing its will on the Irish offensive line. Book, who finished 20-of-28 for 219 yards passing, wasn’t ready to assign blame to his receivers from not getting open sooner and neither was Kelly.

“We didn’t feel that our receivers were having a hard time getting open,” Kelly said. “This was much more about down and distance, and coverage. We were in so many third-and-long situations. When you drop more into coverage than you have out there, you could have five Jerry Rices out there, they’re not getting open as readily.”

Leading receiver Javon McKinley was limited to one catch for six yards in the first three quarters before adding two catches for 31 yards late in the fourth quarter. Mayer caught five passes for 51 yards. Wide receiver Ben Skowronek added four catches for 54 yards.

“I need to watch the film,” Book said. “I don’t want to say anything that’s not 100% true. I played my plays. I haven’t been able to watch everything from a bird’s eye view. That’s what I want to do.”

Book also wants to play again with his teammates to redeem the ugly loss. The Irish learned Sunday that their 10 wins prior to Saturday night were enough to not lose a spot in the College Football Playoff because of Saturday’s result.

The playoff selection committee dropped Notre Dame to the No. 4 seed opposite No. 1 Alabama (11-0) in the Jan. 1, 2021 Rose Bowl semifinal. That game has been relocated from Pasadena, Calif. to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas because of COVID-19 restrictions in California.  

Opening as a 17.5-point underdog to the Crimson Tide, many believe the game could easily end up being another lopsided loss for the Irish. But backing down from a challenge isn’t in the game plan for Notre Dame.

“(Saturday) didn’t go our way,” Book said. “But by being in our locker room five seconds ago, you could tell that these guys want to play again. That’s what you want.

“It could be a whole different vibe in the locker room right now that would show what type of team it really is. But this team is different. We just want to play. We will see who we are playing and when we are playing. But we just want to play another game together.”

Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton, left, Kyren Williams, middle, and Jordan Johnson head to the locker room following the 34-10 loss to Clemson in the ACC Championship.