Hansen: How Notre Dame picks up the pieces is the real key to program evolution

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Brian Kelly took issue with the wording of a question about picking up the pieces Saturday after Clemson punctuated the end of Notre Dame’s four-month run in the ACC with a pungent parting gift.

The rest of the college football world was more concerned at the moment with how the College Football Playoff Selection Committee would process CFP No. 3 Clemson’s 34-10 hazing of the No. 2 Irish Saturday in the ACC Championship Game at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C.

The suspense ended at around 12:30 p.m. (EST) Sunday, when the Irish (10-1) saw their name in the semifinal bracket against a team with more octane than the one they faced Saturday — No. 1 Alabama (11-0). The alternative, had another team landed at No. 4 instead of the Irish would have been Notre Dame heading to a Jan. 2 date in the Orange Bowl against a team that Alabama had already subdued this year.

“Absolutely Notre Dame deserves to be in (the playoff). They’re dadgum 10-1,” offered Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, whose Tigers also happen to be dadgum 10-1.

Ultimately, though, through the Notre Dame lens, Saturday’s aftermath matters most — wherever the Irish might have ended up in January.

Program evolution is never a straight line. So the right response to a regressive step like Saturday’s is how Clemson became, well, Clemson, before it culled elite recruits with regularity. And that’s the opportunity Notre Dame has in front of it.

If quarterback Ian Book is any indication, the Irish at the very least have the necessary pluck.

“We say all the time you get 24 hours to let it suck, because it does,” Book said. “It should hurt. ‘Remember this feeling’ is kind of what we’ve been talking about already.

“Then it’s on you and this team to forget about it and work together toward a common goal, and that’s to win another football game. So whoever that is, wherever that is, whenever that is, you just want to play again is kind of how it works.”

The last time the Irish gave their fan base the sports version of mass despondency, a 45-14 cratering at Michigan last October, they segued into 16 straight wins. Included was a victory over the Tigers Nov. 7 at Notre Dame Stadium that touched off a field-storming celebration in a pandemic.

It was Notre Dame’s first victory over a No. 1 team in 27 years and just its second triumph over a top 5 team in its last 20 such games.

“Me and Jamie (Skalski), walking off that field, had a lot of fans that got in our faces,” said Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, a bystander because of COVID-19 in the 47-40 Irish double-overtime victory. “You kind of keep those images in your head.”

There’s no question Lawrence and middle linebacker Skalski, also a missing piece for the Tigers six weeks ago, helped flip the bottom line Saturday night.

The junior looked downright Heisman-esque in throwing for 322 yards on 25-of-36 accuracy with two TDs while shaking off an early Kyle Hamilton interception. But it was his running that gave the Irish fits.

Lawrence amassed 90 yards on 14 carries, including a 34-yard tear up the gut for a TD, after amassing a modest 121 rushing yards on 44 carries during the regular season.

“It’s THE difference-maker,” Kelly said of Lawrence’s legs. “His ability to run really stressed your coverage calls. It stresses a lot of the things you do with your fits and where essentially you’re trying to get him to certainly not be that kind of player.

“And so what you’re trying to do is bring some pressures that eliminate those runs, but it just opens some one-on-one matchups that are not favorable. And so it’s a dilemma. It’s something we struggled with a little bit tonight.”

Skalski helped make sure the Clemson defense didn’t struggle against a team it yielded 518 total yards to in the last meeting. The Irish finished with roughly half that much Saturday (263), a season low and tied for the eighth-fewest in the Brian Kelly Era.

The most dramatic statistical shift was the running game: 208-34 in Notre Dame’s favor six weeks ago; a 219-44 Clemson landslide Saturday night. That makes the Tigers 62-0 since the start of the 2016 season when outrushing their opponent.

“It wasn’t really what they were doing different,” Irish rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said. “It was more of us just executing and playing what (defensive coordinator Clark) Lea calls.

“People want to do something that’s not in their range. Me, for example, there were so many plays I didn’t do my own job.

“There’s 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 tonight.”

The frequency and the depth of which that happened, though, was a matter of Notre Dame getting outschemed and outcoached. First-year offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has been a revelation all season, but Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables had an answer for everything Saturday night.

Book was sacked six times, a non-factor in the running game, but was a poised 20-of-28 for 219 yards passing without a turnover even as most of the offensive structure was crumbling around him.

That’s not an insignificant detail. Culture carries you when everyone around you gives up on you. When the white noise gets loud. When Twitter turns toxic.

“This team doesn’t quit,” Book said. “I’ve said that in every press conference this year. You can feel it. It’s a vibe that this team has. It’s a great team to play with.

“Tonight didn’t go our way. 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.”

Notre Dame likely returns to its normal independent schedule next season, then starts playing two perennial top five teams, Clemson and Ohio State, both in 2022 and 2023 just to get to the playoff.

Can the Irish take the next step? This postseason? Before Brian Kelly turns the keys to the program over to someone else? Ever?

There’s no right answer at the moment, but at least they know what the next step looks like.

Notre Dame’s Javon McKinley (88) has a pass broken up by Clemson’s Fred Davis II (2) and Ray Thornton III (16) during the ACC Championship football game on Saturday, Dec. 19, 2020, inside Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC. Clemson won 34-10.