Analysis: Notre Dame does what it does, leaves Clemson, Dabo Swinney convinced
SOUTH BEND — Dabo Swinney was two games into his Hall of Fame coaching career the last time Clemson had allowed an opponent to score a touchdown on a blocked punt.
That was 14 years and two national championships ago for the Tigers, who held on to win that early November day at Boston College.
Saturday night, with the wind howling almost as fiercely as the home crowd at Notre Dame Stadium, it happened again. This time, however, Swinney and his fourth-ranked powerhouse would not be so fortunate.
“This was an ass-kicking — period,” Swinney said after a 35-14 loss to unranked Notre Dame that felt more like an affirmation than an upset. “Just flat-out got our tails handed to us.”
It all started with the punt block not quite six minutes in.
Left-footed punter Aidan Swanson, no doubt, had been warned about this Irish skill unmatched in program history since Hunk Anderson’s 1932-33 teams blocked seven apiece in back-to-back-seasons.
Swanson’s phalanx of personal protectors, no doubt, had been warned.
Electric Jordan Botelho still broke through and got a hand on the ball. That made it four straight games with a punt block for the Irish under Brian Mason, aka the maestro of the special teams.
Then Prince Kollie, who got this mind-blowing streak started with his blocked punt in the Oct. 15 loss to Stanford, grabbed the ball out of the night air and raced 19 yards to the end zone.
“Everybody knows we’re coming after punts,” Freeman said. “We’re not tricking anybody. It’s about the way we teach it and the way they go out and they execute.”
Asked for an explanation, Swinney eschewed the soft shoe, as per his custom.
“It was just very simple,” he said. “We just flat-out didn’t do our job. That was huge momentum early, and we never got it back.”
Also left strewn along Clemson’s frantic exit route through a wild on-field celebration at night’s end:
∎ A 14-game winning streak that had been the nation’s longest active run;
∎ Swinney’s nine-game winning streak when coming off the bye week;
∎ Any remaining hype about Clemson’s defensive front being generationally significant.
'Jackhammer and Bulldozer'
Twin 100-yard rushing games for Logan Diggs (114 yards) and Audric Estime (104) against the nation’s 11th-stingiest run defense pretty much took care of that last one.
Call them the Jackhammer and the Bulldozer.
Notre Dame (6-3) converted just three times on third down in building a 14-0 halftime lead. All three came on Estime runs, starting with a 13-yard gash on third-and-10 from the Clemson 37.
On the 78-yard scoring march that ate up all but one snap of the final 6:25 of the first half, Estime barreled for 11 yards on third-and-3 and then, needing 1 yard, powered off the right side for 2.
Three plays later, Drew Pyne was in the end zone, and Clemson’s spirit was broken.
How far into Saturday night did Diggs start to realize the Irish offensive line could whip Clemson up front?
“Maybe after my third or fourth carry,” Diggs said after averaging 6.7 yards on his 17 attempts, “when you’re back there and you’re getting the ball and you see them pushing them back and you see those holes opening.”
“A lot of holes that we had, we ran through untouched,” Diggs said. “They knew how much was on the line. They went out and proved that they were one of the best O-lines in the country this week. They were unbelievable.”
He would get no argument from Swinney after Notre Dame’s sixth win in seven outings. Quite a response after an 0-2 start that seemingly put the entire Freeman era in peril.
“They were outstanding,” Swinney said after the margin of defeat matched his team's largest since the start of 2015. “Just absolutely dominated us in every facet of football, starting with coaching. Blocking and tackling, you name it. They were the more physical team. They were the more disciplined team. We had stupid penalties.”
Swinney and Co. knew what was coming, and still Clemson was powerless to stop it. Even with three projected top-20 NFL draft picks in the Tigers' defensive front seven.
“You have to play to your strengths,” Freeman said after Notre Dame's most convincing win over top-five competition since 1995's 38-10 romp over USC.
Maybe being predictable isn’t so bad when you're the one that keeps punching the other guy in the mouth.
Swinney certainly seemed to suggest as much five days earlier in his overview of the Irish.
“They’ve had to redefine themselves in some areas,” Swinney said. “There’s no secret what their identity is. They have a style of play, and you either are ready for that or you’re not. They’re a very physical group, and you can either match that or you can’t.”
Saturday, for one of the rare times in Swinney’s historic run, Clemson couldn’t.
Follow Notre Dame football writer Mike Berardino on Twitter @MikeBerardino.