Notre Dame dismisses another ACC team the way it did the previous 26 ACC teams
SOUTH BEND — There still were seconds and minutes remaining on the play clock, still time for guys from both sides to run and pass and tackle and huddle and do it all again for another down, but none of that mattered.
The party already had commenced late Saturday inside Notre Dame Stadium with more than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter against No. 5 Clemson. Standing alongside the back of the end zone on the stadium’s north end, it felt a combination of part Mardi Gras, part New Year’s Eve, part church revival and part Linebacker Happy Hour all rolled into one.
Let the good times flow.
How the points were scored:Notre Dame upsets No. 5 Clemson, 35-14
Everyone up there in the cold and dark of the concrete stands stood and hollered. Louder and louder and louder. Like a wave. Those who did sit did so atop the brick wall along the front row — we see you guy with no shirt and jeans and planning to be the first one down and out onto the field — while game management personnel huddled to discuss the best post-game strategy.
They would stream out of the stands as soon as the clock hit zero — actually , they started with 32 seconds still to go, but it already was over — so what was the best way to proceed?
Let them run and have their fun. Just protect the goal posts from coming down and ending up in the lake over by the Grotto. Or behind the bar at the ‘Backer. Let them sprint from the stands with their hands held high in one way or another. Those not recording the moment on their cell phones were galloping with glee with one hand extended into the cool night air, index fingers held high in an exclamation that Notre Dame, at least for this night, was No. 1.
Number one after beating No. 5 and previously undefeated Clemson in such a thorough fashion. It was going to happen for Notre Dame, and it happened for the home team almost right from the start. First quarter, first Clemson series. Punt block, Jordan Botelho. Punt block return for a touchdown Prince Kollie.
Irish off and running to a place that few figured this program would get to this season. Not after home losses to Marshall and Stanford. Not after struggles against California and UNLV. Not after a season with such promise had slipped into a season of such mystery.
What was this program going to be under first-year head coach Marcus Freeman? Could Notre Dame get back to where it landed Saturday night? After so many days and weeks and months of uncertainty, of soul-searching, of not knowing when or if the payoff would come, the payoff arrived.
Notre Dame 35, Clemson 14.
Make it six wins in the last seven weeks for these Irish. Make it three straight wins over ranked teams. Make room for them in the next Top 25. Here come the Irish, indeed.
This one wasn’t that close. This was nothing like 2020 when Clemson came to town the nation’s No. 1 team but left with a double overtime loss. This one was better. The stands were full. Rock’s house rocked. It rolled. And for a 27th consecutive time, Notre Dame lined up opposite an Atlantic Coast Conference team in a regular season game, looked at it and thought to its collective self, we’ve got this.
Another game against an ACC team, another win. Notre Dame hasn’t lost to an ACC outfit since No. 11, 2017. This was supposed to be the night that that streak was snapped. Maybe easily. Convincingly. Instead, it was extended. Twenty-seven straight and counting.
Who’s next? Who cares? That league stinks.
This one was no fluke
On this night, nobody on the other sideline was better than tight end Michael Mayer. Or better than the running back tag-team tandem of Logan Diggs and Audric Estime. Or more determined a tackler than J.D. Bertrand.
Or better than Notre Dame (6-3).
“I don’t want to say we physically dominated them,” said Freeman.
OK, so we'll say it. Notre Dame beat the you-know-what out of Clemson. Rag-dolled and rope-a-doped them. Right from the go, the Tigers never had a chance. When they realized what had hit them, it was over.
For one night, all those feel-good vibes that were supposed to sustain this team through the season returned. After too many Irish home games, there have been some long walks up that tunnel and into that home locker room. Saturday’s might have been the longest. For all the right reasons.
There were so many fans out on the field that it made it tough for the Irish to exit in a timely manner. They had to bob and weave and duck just to find some daylight. Freeman, on the not-so-subtle advice from his security team, was ushered off before the traditional standing and swaying and playing of the alma mater.
“I really didn’t want to leave that field,” he said. “Man, this is a game that I’ll never forget.”
This was a moment for him. A few more may await.
Freeman’s mind raced too fast to collect his immediate thoughts on what it all meant to him and to his players and to the future. Too soon. Everything was a whirlwind, much like his hiring coming up on a year in December. Life moved so fast then. It moved even faster Saturday.
Irish fans who were on the field had really only one easy/express way out – up the tunnel and out into the November night. Their paths just happened to cross with Freeman, who was on his way across the way to the post-game press conference. He was given a deafening cheer.
Instant observations:Oh, it was one of those nights for the home team inside Notre Dame Stadium
It made it hard to hear yourself think with all those cheers bouncing around all that concrete.
“Damn, that's a pretty good ovation right there,” a smiling Freeman said as he sought sanctuary in the post-game presser. “This is a special win for me and a special win for our football program.”
Why now? Why this team? Maybe this team, this coaching staff, this program, had to go through those early struggles to secure this type of success. Now that they have, there’s no plan to let go of it anytime soon.
“I wish I could explain exactly how this season has gone,” Freeman said. “You can’t. It’s never as you foresee it on the front end. Shoot, as an adult, you never see life on the front end going exactly the way you dreamed, but you know what, I’m happy that the kids continue to believe in what we’re doing.
“Today was one of those special moments.”
As Freeman spoke, you still could hear the students on the other side of the glass, on the other side of the doors.
“LET’S GO IRISH!”
Every so often, Freeman, who could hear them, had to stifle a smile. Following 10 minutes with the media, Freeman exited and headed back for the locker room. Mayer took the podium, but his words would have to wait until the door shut. It was too darn noisy to again hear anything. Another ovation for Freeman commenced.
Mayer smiled. He was just glad to be off the field., He was able to celebrate with his brothers, with his friends, with his teammates. He might've wanted to stay, but instead chose sanity.
“I couldn’t get out of there; they had to help me get out of there,” Mayer said. “It felt good to watch the fans run out on the field.”
It was even better watching these Irish do what they did – and how they did it. Everything we thought this team could be this season, they were Saturday.
“It was a really, really good experience for all of us,” Diggs said. “We still have work to do.”
Early Sunday morning, we turned the clocks back one hour. A couple hours earlier, Notre Dame also turned the clocks back more than an hour. More like a few years. To a time when games — and wins — like this were the norm. Maybe they will be again.
Seven weeks ago, those days seemed so distant. Not anymore.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.