It is finally here! The game that I and the rest of the Irish faithful have been waiting for: Notre Dame vs. Clemson! Clemson has gotten the best of Notre Dame in the two most recent meetings, and the Irish have not defeated the number one team in the country since 1993. 2005 was the last time Notre Dame defeated a top-5 team , when they beat #3 Michigan on the road 17-10. Brian Kelly has made this team more competitive in top-5 and top-10 matchups, but they have still not managed to pick up that win over a title contending team. Meanwhile, Clemson has played in multiple National Championship games and they have two titles as well. However, Notre Dame has proven that they can play with great teams. They lost a close game to Georgia at home in 2017, and last year played even better, albeit, in another loss to Georgia. This game is different though, and Notre Dame fans will agree, this has to be a win tonight or the Irish eyes will not be smiling.
In 2017, Notre Dame had Georgia on the schedule. Many people expected Georgia to blow the doors off of Notre Dame and prove what many people have claimed to be true over the last 20 years: Notre Dame isn’t relevant anymore. The Georgia fans showed up too, claiming about 40% of the stadium, which was unsettling to know before the game was even played. The Irish played the way their fans have wanted them to for years. The defense was stout, led by Drue Tranquill, Jerry Tillery, and Julian Love, the Irish held Georgia to 10 points in the first half. The offense was good. Brandon Wimbush was efficient, Josh Adams made plays in the passing game as Georgia was able to stop the run, and the Irish receivers were able to get some separation. Gerogia played well too behind, then freshman QB, Jake Fromm and the two headed monster of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. Fromm was able to manage the game well, and Michel and Chubb were enough to keep Georgia in the game. Both run defenses were fantastic. Unfortunately, Notre Dame was unable to score more touchdowns than field goals and Jake Fromm was able to lead the Bulldogs to a second touchdown. Notre Dame was unable to answer as their only turnover came at the worst time, on their final drive, as Wimbush was sacked and fumbled the ball. It was a heart-breaking loss, but I was able to leave the game feeling confident that Notre Dame could compete. I would only hope they got another chance to do so against a top team.
Clemson’s 2017 season saw them stumble once on their way to another College Football Playoff selection. A 24-27 loss to Syracuse. Kelly Bryant led the Tigers to a semi-final appearance against, guess who, Alabama. Unfortunately for the Tigers, Alabama was able to come out on top in this matchup, but Clemson was established as a new year-in-year-out contender.
In 2018, Notre Dame and Clemson roared through their schedules on their way to a meeting in the College Football Playoff semi-finals. Clemson was led by Kelly Bryant’s replacement, and now superstar QB Trevor Lawrence, while the Irish were led by Brandon Wimbush’s replacement, Ian Book. Both quarterbakcs showed that they were better than fans thought and better than the quarterbacks they replaced. Notre Dame would score 30+ points in 7 of their 9 games that Book started and only allow 20+ points in 4 of those 9. Clemson was only challenged twice: the game in which Trevor Lawrence made his first appearance, which was a Kelly Bryant led comeback over Texas A&M. The second game was against Syracuse where Trevor Lawrence briefly left the game, but the team was able to come back and win.
Anticipation for this matchup was through the roof. Since the Georgia loss, Notre Dame fans were itching to show that now they could compete against the big guys on an ever bigger stage. This was there chance. Unfortunately, it did not go the way any Notre Dame fan would have hoped. The Tiger defense was able to shut down Notre Dame’s offense, while the Tiger offense struggled as well, they were able to take advantage of an injury in the Irish secondary to take a comfortable halftime lead that they would not let slip away. Travis Etienne would put the game away with a 62 yard rushing TD and Clemson would win the game 30-3. The most disappointing part of that game was the lack of offense the Irish were able to generate. This sent Brian Kelly and the Irish faithful back to the drawing board hoping that 2019 would prove to be a different story.
2019 looked promising. Notre Dame’s rematch with Georgia was on and while the Irish lost a lot of key seniors, their offense was still loaded with 2nd year starter Ian Book, Chase Claypool at receiver, Cole Kemet at TE, and a two headed monster at RB in Tony Jones Jr and Jafar Armstrong. The Irish came into their matchup with the Bulldogs undefeated again, but this time facing a hostile environment on the road. Once again, the Irish stepped up and proved the blowouts of the past were gone. They dominated the first half. Cole Kemet could not be stopped. He had 7 catches for 68 yards, and the Irish led 10-7. The lone down side being a Kemet fumble, that was more a great defensive play than Kemet fumbling easily. The second half is where Georgia would come back. The Irish stopped running a spread offense and attempted to establish a run game that could not get going. Once again, both defenses were stopping the run, but the Irish did not stick with what was working: Spreading the Georgia defense out, hitting the tight end underneath and picking apart the secondary. Georgia would take a 13-10 lead into the fourth quarter. It was now or never for Notre Dame. 15 minutes to prove they could not only hang with, but beat a top team again. Notre Dame continued to be stubborn in their offensive play calling, and this led to the defense being out on the field longer. Georgia began to pick apart the tiring Irish defense and build a 23-10 lead. The headline seemed to have been written: Notre Dame starts strong, but can’t finish and gets dominated in the second half by a better team. That was not the entire story, but the headline would have been written.
During the game, I was texting my father’s side of the family in our group chat. Even they thought the game was over. Under 8 minutes to go, I was the only one keeping the faith, if they could just get back to what was working and move quickly, this game was far from over. I guess they heard me, because that is exactly what Notre Dame did. They marched down the field in less than four minutes in a methodical drive to score a touchdown and bring the score to 23-17. My dad’s of the family was still saying it was too little too late. In the past, this would have been the case. However, I knew this team was different and I trusted that things had to change. The defense proved me right forcing a 3 and out. Two minutes and 52 yard stood between Notre Dame and a win over a title contending team. The Irish would drive inside the Georgia 40 before time was a factor. It was fourth down at the Bulldog 38. They needed a first down to keep the game alive. Book heaves up a pass to Claypool and in somewhat of a controversial no-call, the pass falls incomplete and the Irish fall just short again. This loss stung more because they had a lead and should have won the game. It was frustrating more so than heart-breaking this time. Heart-break would come later.
Notre Dame had another top teir game against Michigan on the road. Michigan was not as good as Georgia, and given the performance in Athens, the Irish were expected to win this game. The weather brought back memories of 2015 at Clemson. A hurricane ravaged the area and the Irish lost a hard fought game at the end with Clemson stopping a two-point conversion. However, this was a total disaster. No offense, the defense seemingly on campus, turnovers, and it was as if the game was played with only Michigan on the field. Notre Dame lost this game 45-14, and this was heart-breaking as this was the old Notre Dame, a team that was favored and finally established they could hang with the top teams, playing down and worse than their competition and losing in a blow out. They would go on to win the rest of their games and fire their offensive coordinator (finally) due to inconsistent and conservative play calling, but the damage was done. They lost their toughest games, and ended the year with that same lingering question: Are we ever going to beat a top-tier team again and prove that we can not only hang, but win these games?
Clemson’s 2019 saw them make it to yet another National Championship game behind Trevor Lawrence and a loaded receiving core for the Tigers. Unfortunately for the Tigers, they went up against a quarterback who finally was able to break out and a team that could not be stopped: Joe Burrow and the LSU Tigers. That team dominated everyone that they played. By the time they got to the title game, it did not matter who was out there, LSU was not losing. In doing so, they proved that spreading Clemson out on offense and being able to contain their run game was a blueprint to defeating them.
That brings us to 2020. To tonight. The coronavirus has made some things different about this season: Notre Dame is in the ACC for this year only and could play Clemson twice. That is not the point that this has all led to though. The most important game is tonight. Notre Dame showed they can play with the top-tier teams, but they lost. That is what matters in the end and Notre Dame fans will agree, we cannot wait until a potential ACC title game to prove ourselves, it is time to do it now. The Irish need to win this game. Brian Kelly needs this win for his job security. I am thrilled with a 22-game home win streak and the nation’s longest win streak, but if we lose the game the story will be: Notre Dame still cannot win the big one. That will continue to be the question, as it has been for quite a while now. Clemson needs this win for the devlopment of their young quarterback, but that is also not an excuse. D.J. Uiagalelei is getting this start and he played very well against Boston College. He was 30/41 for 342 and 2 scores. He also added 6 carries for 25 yards and one TD on the ground. The bad spots for Clemson were their first half defense and a rare fumble from Etienne. Outside of that, they shut out BC in the second half and dominated after halftime. This will not be an easy test, and Clemson has not missed a beat here.
Notre Dame will win this game if they do not get conservative on offense. That is the fear I have. They cannot force the run, throw to the short side, run a lot of screen plays. They need to throw to the line to gain and beyond. Move vertically, not horizontally. Should they do that, throughout the entire game, they will have success on offense. Transfer wideout Ben Skowronek and Javon McKinley will need to have breakout games tonight. On defense, the Irish need to contain the run game. Force Uiagalelei to beat you throw the air. He did it in his first start against a weaker defense than the Irish, and I trust an improved Irish secondary more than I have over the last decade.
Clemson is favored by 5.5 and are the established favorite in college football today. Notre Dame can win this game though, and I believe that they do. The noise of not beating a top-teir game ends, and the Irish can move forward with the only question remaining then being: Can they do it again?
Featured Image Via: UND.com
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