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Clemson Review: Irish Fumble Away Chance to Stay Perfect

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Turnovers and missed opportunities doomed Notre Dame on Saturday.

Matt Cashore-USA TODAY Sports

Notre Dame looked dead in the water for most of Saturday night in Death Valley. Then, following a stirring 4th quarter comeback there was an opportunity to shock Clemson. It fell short and hurt like hell. Let's breakdown what happened against the Tigers.

Play-Call of the Game: Kizer 56-Yard Touchdown Pass to Prosise

The comeback doesn't begin without this spark early in the 4th quarter. I would say it was easy to forget that the Irish had only scored 3 points through 3 quarters but it most certainly was not easy to forget.

Wheel Route Clemson

This was important not only because it breathed live into the Irish offense and put them into position to start a comeback but it gave DeShone Kizer the confidence to start moving the ball through the air and make more plays.

Let's talk about the first 2-point conversion now because it came right after this touchdown pass.

By definition, if there's plenty of room to argue both sides of the decision then it cannot be a terrible coaching blunder. This is in contrast to the 2-point try last year against Northwestern which WAS a coaching blunder that didn't make any sense to any coaching or mathematical wisdom. This decision against Clemson was not that, at all.

To further understand the thought process, and the reasons for and against going for 2 at this point in the game, I'd highly recommend this piece to you:

The Curious Case of Brian Kelly: Notre Dame and the Mysterious 2-Point Conversion

"How early (or late) in a game should coaches think about getting a 2-point try out of the way?"

This is basically the crux of the issue. If you think there was too much time left to be chasing points and/or thought Clemson wouldn't be kept off the scoreboard the rest of the game then it's a 'bad' decision. If you think you were going to need the 2-point conversion at some point and/or the defense was playing well enough to keep Clemson off the scoreboard the decision (which is 'correct' according to the coaching charts) makes sense.

At the end of the day, it's easy to zero in on this as something that 'cost' Notre Dame the game--yet we know from experience that football fans almost always seek out the easiest route and lowest common denominator when a coach makes a black and white decision. To me, it's really not much different than the decision right before halftime to punt from Clemson's 44-yard line with half a minute to play. I disagreed with the decision to punt, and was fine with going for 2-points after Prosise's touchdown, but I believe there were many other more crucial errors and blunders that contributed to the loss.

Clemson had gone 8 offensive possessions with 6 punts, 1 interception, and 1 touchdown drive that began at the Irish 29-yard line following C.J. Sanders' kickoff fumble. Trying to cut it to a 10-point lead in the 4th quarter is not a hugely controversial decision. I'm sorry, it's just not.

You know how I know this wasn't a huge blunder? Social media did not blow up immediately during the game like it did with the Northwestern decision. This decision, like many moments in a game, was aided by second-guessing once the ball sailed through Robinson's hands incomplete.

Armchair Quarterback

One positive takeaway from the loss was the maturation and development from Kizer. If you add in the catchable passes that were dropped the redshirt freshman would have finished 25 of 34 with as many as 400 yards through the air. Clemson definitely dared Kizer to beat them, and while that was a winning bet for the Tigers most of the game, I can't blame Kizer at all because he didn't shrink in the moment.

If there are some teaching moments the interception was a very poor read. Incredibly, with just over 6 minutes left in the game the Irish would get two more long-ish drives after the interception and Clemson missed their field goal attempt anyway. I think this played a large part in second-guessing of the first 2-point conversion attempt.

And another thing to point out was that 208 of Kizer's 321 passing yards came in the final quarter. Only 113 yards through 3 quarters--even factoring in some drops--points to a lot of struggles to move the ball.

Elsewhere, we saw some moments of inaccuracy from Kizer, too. Beyond that he's completely impressed me in nearly every way. Absurd poise, seemingly getting more athletic and comfortable as a runner (led the team with 60 rushing yards!), and able to be a playmaker when everything else around him was not going that well.

Turning Point: Cole Luke Interception

Normally, we talk about a turning point in favor of the winning team. However, since the game came down to Notre Dame's final 2-point play I looked elsewhere for something that turned the tide.

It's kind of funny how Luke has been criticized for shushing the crowd (oh, my what an embarrassment to all involved!) after his interception and then Notre Dame made their comeback immediately following it. I always wonder what the cross-section is for fans who hate that trash talk (it's been a part of the defensive back DNA since 1987, Jesus what do we expect?) and the fans who make blanket statements like "the team wasn't showing enough emotion or passion."

At the time, this pick kind of felt like Notre Dame was just saving face from a blowout loss. The Tigers looked to be marching 84 yards for the back-breaking touchdown and without this interception the game never goes down to the wire.

Surprising Stat: 295 Total Yards by Clemson

Was it just me or did it take a long, long time to realize Clemson really wasn't doing much on offense in this game? The Irish were only out-gained by 15 yards in the first half and mostly due to the problems on offense it felt a lot worse than that.

After Clemson came out guns a blazin' on their first two series' they only gained 191 yards the rest of the game. At the final whistle, Notre Dame had out-gained Clemson by 1.8 yards per play.

It simultaneously seems crazy but makes sense. It's true Clemson got really conservative for most of the second half so it's fair to say those numbers aren't truly indicative of what we could have seen from the Tigers.

Unheralded Star: Torii Hunter

Maybe this was Hunter's break out game? He led the team with 5 catches and scored the final touchdown for the Irish. I'd also point out Max Redfield's 11 solo tackles as a step in the right direction. On Sunday, Kelly told the media this was Redfield's best game in a Notre Dame uniform.

Missed Opportunity: The Final 2-Point Attempt

Originally, I was going to go with Chris Brown's fumble at the Clemson 4-yard line but the Irish ended up right back in the same position just a couple minutes later and scored a touchdown anyway. I guess you could say it was possible to tie the game if Brown doesn't fumble, the defense gets a stop, and the Irish somehow kick a game-winning field goal. But, it's much more likely Clemson gets more aggressive if Brown doesn't fumble and the Irish never get the ball back in regulation. Don't forget there was just over 2 minutes left in the game.

Here was my thought process with the final 2-point conversion. I was surprised that Kizer ran the ball at the snap. I would have thrown the ball for sure.

2-point 1

After the game, Kelly said a run there by Kizer was the right call given the look from Clemson. They had 6 in the box (with only 2 linemen down in a three-point stance!) and Prosise acting as a lead-blocker. As much as I think a pass was the right call from that above screenshot this looked like a touchdown.

2-point 2

Except, the Tigers had more players who won this snap. Defensive tackle Carlos Watkins (#94) absolutely owned the play while scraping hard down the line and overpowering both Nick Martin and Steve Elmer. Linebacker Ben Boulware came up and filled the hole so hard that he knocked Prosise back as the lead blocker. These things happened and completely closed any room for Kizer to run.

Flag of the Game: 3 Straight Penalties on Notre Dame's 4th Offensive Series

Penalties weren't a huge part of this game as the Irish only surrendered a single 1st down to Clemson via a flag and they gained only 2 chain-movers on offense from opponent infractions. Most of the calls on the Irish occurred in the first half, especially in the 2nd quarter.

On the 4th drive right in the middle of Notre Dame's struggles on offense they committed a delay of game, false start by McGlinchey, and a delay of game right in a row.

Red Zone TD Success: 66%

Kizer's short touchdown run and pass to Hunter were the red zone drives that ended in touchdowns while Chris Brown's fumble was the lone blemish. How weird is it that in 2 games recently where there is some 2-point controversy both contests featured Brown losing a fumble inside the opponents 5-yard line?

Schemes n Such

The run game got straight embarrassed for most of the game and especially in the first half. There was some talk in the post-game from the Clemson side about keying on Irish linemen's stance and knowing when a run play was coming. If true or not, Notre Dame lost a lot of individual battles up front and could not handle Clemson dropping safeties down into the box. We knew this was going to happen and the run game was obliterated.

I don't have a huge problem with the play-calling early on. It was clear that the staff thought they could ride Prosise and let him set the tone on the road in a crazy venue. Remember how the vast majority of people in our community thought the exact same thing, too?

It's not an easy situation to be in when your gameplan gets blown to bits so quickly. If you abandon the run that early that brings as much if not more criticism and could have been more disastrous with a young quarterback having to put so much on his plate before getting comfortable. If you stay with it brings the criticism we've seen in the post-game aftermath. I don't know, with the weather, the atmosphere, the results, I don't think there was much for the coaches to do re adjustments that didn't come later in the game.

Trench Analysis

The offensive line got mauled in the run game during the first half and wasn't much better in the second half. I just talked about Notre Dame's gameplan getting blown to smithereens and here's the stat line for Prosise in the first half: 10 carries for 4 yards, including -5 yards on his first 6 carries with no single attempt over 1-yard among those first 6 touches.

As usual, the pass protection was where it needed to be, although Clemson notched 4 sacks.

The defensive line played about where we should have expected it. Clemson running back Wayne Gallman had a nice day (98 yards, 4.5 per rush) but was hardly a major factor. There were plenty of instances of stepping up and shutting things down, especially in the second half, and it would have been a much more productive day had the Irish wrapped up on more tackles at and behind the line of scrimmage.

Day, Rochell, Okwara, and Tillery combined for 4 tackles for loss which is a nice day for this group.

Freshmen Update

9 freshmen saw the field on Saturday: TE Alize Jones, LB Te'von Coney, WR C.J. Sanders, K Justin Yoon, CB Nick Coleman, S Nicco Fertitta, RB Josh Adams, WR Equanimeous St. Brown, and DT Jerry Tillery.

Final Thoughts

If you want to script the beginnings to each half the Irish did about as poorly as you can do to open each stanza. Allowing a touchdown, going 3 and out, and allowing another touchdown plagued the start in the first half. After the break Sanders fumbles the kickoff, Clemson scores another touchdown, and Prosise fumbles the next Irish play from scrimmage. Absolutely brutal.

I've been clamoring for a change at kick returner, as have many, and we finally saw it as C.J. Sanders took one back for 46 yards. Hooray! Then, he loses a fumble on a hit from the kicker and it erases all goodwill. I still think he should remain back there as the starter.

Sneaky big play from late in the game? This pass interference no-call in the end-zone on Notre Dame's second-to-last offensive series.

no call

Chris Brown fumbled on the next play.

Not the worst interference in the history of the world. And as I mentioned above who knows how the game plays out if the Irish score here anyway. Still, Tankersley held Brown for several yards into the end zone and ripped him down to the ground as the ball came into play.

Here's something to discuss: Should Irish corner KeiVarae Russell pass up an extra year of eligibility to enter the NFL Draft this spring? Granted, I think he's made it known he'll graduate and be gone. But still, he has not played anywhere close to the hype and even if he's a Combine workout warrior his stock has taken a significant hit so far in 2015.

Things are not going great for Corey Robinson right now. He had 2 momentous drops (he wasn't the only receiver but his were particularly crucial) and a mental error lining up to boot. He's only caught 5 passes this season and just 18 balls over his last 11 games since having a career game against Florida State in 2014. As a junior you wonder how much more playing time he'll receive in the place of younger kids. On Sunday, Kelly said Robinson needs to get better but they will rely on him in the future. Believe it or not, he's only had 3 games over his career with more than 3 catches.

Overall, the defense played well and did enough to win, at least in a vacuum. If you had told me we'd hold Clemson to under 300 yards I'd be sure Notre Dame would have won--even with the weather. The big heartbreak were the missed tackles which continued to give Clemson life and much better situations on offense. They just couldn't do enough to turn in a super strong performance, and combined with zero sacks and a -3 turnover deficit, a tip-top effort was needed through the first 3 quarters to keep the game close.

It always sucks losing the first game of the season. It hits home that once again this won't be The Year. In all likelihood the Irish won't make the playoffs this year, either. Even though I thought this was a 9-3 team back in August I'm still not immune to feeling the pain of losing what could have been a huge road win for the program.  The next step is to see if a New Year's Bowl game or a 10+ win season can be obtained. As I've said several times these two goals need to be achieved this year or else it's going to be a long, long off-season.