Key moments: What fueled Notre Dame's upset of No. 4 Clemson

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND — Dabo Swinney didn't mince words. He couldn't. Not after that performance, one where Notre Dame looked every bit the better team during its 35-14 upset of College Football Playoff No. 4 Clemson.

"They just physically kicked our butt," Swinney said. "Period. The end."

That was just the beginning. The end was nearly 80,000 Notre Dame fans jumping and streaming onto the Notre Dame Stadium turf to celebrate the first signature win of the Marcus Freeman era.

"Extremely pleased with way our guys played," Freeman said. "Offense, defense, special teams, all three phases really played well. We're going to enjoy this one. We're going to enjoy it tonight, tomorrow, and then at some point tomorrow get back to work."

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This win, in front of a home crowd that witnessed losses to lowly Marshall and Stanford this season, was needed. Now, with back-to-back victories over ranked teams, the Irish are looking like the team many thought they could be this Fall.

Here are a few moments that mattered on a special Notre Dame Saturday in South Bend.

The Benjamin Morrison game

The evolution of cornernback Benjamin Morrison was on full display Saturday night, then reached its climax with a 96-yard interception return for a touchdown that felt like the final twist of the dagger to Clemson's perfect season.

Notre Dame defensive back Benjamin Morrison (20) makes an interception intended for Clemson wide receiver Joseph Ngata (10) during the Notre Dame vs. Clemson NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

Morrison's jaunt early in the fourth quarter put Notre Dame up 28-0, after he adjusted to a misplaced pass by D.J. Uiagalelei near the ND goal line.

"I have been struggling in that position all year long," Morrison said. "Back shoulder fade, just getting my eyes back. Today I was focused on the details and once I had (the receiver) in the position I wanted to, I could have just played the man and got a (pass breakup), but I trusted my abilities, flipped my head around and there the ball was."

Morrison, a true freshman, finished with two interceptions in the game, also stepping in front of a pass from Cade Klubnik, Clemson's backup quarterback, who briefly entered the game to try to spark a sputtering Tigers offense. He also finished with seven tackles — behind only J.D. Bertrand's 12 — and a pass break up.

"I know the player I can be," Morrison said. "All week I knew what type of game this was and they were going to test me off of previous games what I've shown on film. I had to lock in on what I wanted to accomplish."

This was the performance Notre Dame's coaches thought Morrison could give when they fluxed him into a starting cornerback role in wins against Cal and North Carolina, as well against Stanford and Syracuse.

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In those games, including Saturday, Morrison experienced the normal highs and lows of a freshman learning on the fly, weathered them and put his stamp on the Irish victory.

On the first play of the second half, Morrison was called for a face mask, pushing the Tigers near midfield. He was targeted three other times, allowing two receptions, before snagging his first-career interception.

Clemson tested him again on its next drive, with a similar result.

Notre Dame defensive back Benjamin Morrison (20) breaks up a pass for Clemson wide receiver Adam Randall (8) during the Notre Dame vs. Clemson NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

Since August Freeman has raved about Morrison's potential, and the young defender has continued to back his coach's praise.

"He's an ultimate competitor that doesn't get shaken," Freeman said. "It's really uncommon for a freshman to be like that."

First half TD drive emphasizes Notre Dame's identity

How fun it must have been for Notre Dame's offense hearing run play after another called into the huddle, knowing the much-touted Clemson defensive front couldn't stop it.

"The O-line was probably more excited than anyone else," Logan Diggs said. "They like having the game in their hands. We always tell them we will go as far as they go, so they take that challenge, run with it and do a fantastic job."

Clemson's Clemson linebacker Trenton Simpson (22) takes down Notre Dame running back Logan Diggs (3) during the Notre Dame vs. Clemson NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

Notre Dame's 271 rushing yards on 47 carries, a season high, was surprising as it came against a defense allowing the seventh-least amount of rushing yards per game.

It didn't matter. Behind the Irish offensive line Diggs (114 yards), Audric Estime (109) and Chris Tyree (26) ran wild.

"They were unbelievable tonight," Diggs said of the offensive line. "They went out and proved that they are one of the best o-lines in the country this week.

"When you are back there, getting the ball and you see those holes open, our holes we had tonight, we ran through untouched"

Nov 5, 2022; South Bend, Indiana, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish running back Logan Diggs (3) runs the ball as offensive lineman Jarrett Patterson (55) blocks Clemson Tigers cornerback Sheridan Jones (6) in the second quarter at Notre Dame Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame has had rushing success at points throughout the year. However, this performance embodied what the Irish want to be under Freeman, where they run it down your throat because you can't stop it, and use that success to open up the passing game.

That was perfectly displayed in Notre Dame's crucial touchdown drive right before the half.

The Irish used 11 plays to go 78 yards, taking a 14-0 lead with 38 seconds left in the half on a 5-yard run by Drew Pyne.

Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne (10) dives in for a touchdown during the Notre Dame vs. Clemson NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

Notre Dame ran the ball 10 times on that drive, four of which went for more than 10 yards.

Pyne completed just 9-of-17 passes for 85 yards and a touchdown — to tight end Michael Mayer. But for Notre Dame, the less its quarterback has to do through the air, the better.

"That's been our backbone," Freeman said of Notre Dame's rushing attack. "We knew this defensive line was special, but we couldn't shy away from our strength. It was a challenge to our offensive line, to our quarterback, our running back. I think at some point during the game their confidence rose and they said, listen, we can block anybody in the country, and they showed they could do that tonight."

Brian Mason's unit makes another big difference

This has turned from a story to the story of the season.

Brian Mason has turned Notre Dame's punt block unit into a weekly scoring threat, and it created Irish momentum in the early moments.

Notre Dame linebacker Prince Kollie (10) scores during the Notre Dame vs. Clemson NCAA football game Saturday, Nov. 5, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana.

After Clemson's first possession resulted in a punt, Jordan Botelho shot through the middle of the Tigers' formation to get a hand on the ball and deflecting it right to Prince Kollie, who returned it for a 17-yard score.

"Yeah, he did it again," Freeman said. "That group did it again. Kudos to Coach Mase and his hard work and preparation."

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It was Notre Dame's sixth punt block of the season, setting a modern day program record dating back to 1937.

This was why Freeman brought Mason in from Cincinnati, to be a game-changer. And he has as the Irish special teams have blocked four punts and set the tone for Notre Dame the past three weeks — all Irish wins.

"Everybody in the country knows you're coming after a punt," Freeman said. "When you find ways to execute and you find ways to play with relentless effort, it doesn't matter if a team knows you're coming after a punt or not. That's why I'm so happy for this group."