Friends, it is with a heavy heart that I have to write my first “Three Things” about a loss by the Notre Dame Fighting Irish this year. After a perfect regular season, the Irish absolutely flopped in the ACC Championship game, losing 34-10 in a rematch with the Clemson Tigers. A daunting matchup with the Alabama Crimson Tide now looms in the College Football Playoff. In the meantime, let’s look at three observations from this sobering loss.
Opportunities missed = game lost
The most infuriating thing about this game was that it actually looked great for the Irish early on. The offense was moving the ball without much difficulty and the defense landed a massive turnover on Clemson’s opening drive. Driving inside the Clemson ten after Kyle Hamilton’s interception, the Irish could have gone up two possessions early and completely altered the texture of this game. Instead, they flinched, attempting a chip-shot field goal which Jonathan Doerer missed and giving Clemson a chance to turn the tables. The Tigers, unlike the Irish, seized the moment and never looked back.
If the Irish were to win this game - and if they are to win against Alabama - turnovers that didn’t lead to points couldn’t happen. Scoreless trips to the red zone couldn’t happen. Avery Davis’ drop on a key fourth down couldn’t happen. But they did, and the Irish proceeded to get housed from there as one would expect. You simply cannot miss those opportunities early and expect to compete against the caliber of competition the Irish were playing.
The good news is that these opportunities were there - this wasn’t a game like the 2012 BCS championship where the Irish simply never had a chance. Although this Clemson team was undoubtedly a more difficult match at full strength, the Irish still could have kep this game close if they executed in a few key moments. That is what truly defines a championship team, and only one team was able to do it Saturday.
Deja Vu All Over Again
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Notre Dame and Clemson play in a postseason football game. The Irish hang with the Tigers for the first quarter, but Clemson builds a big lead in a back-breaking second quarter. The Irish defense stabilizes in the second half, but the offense is completely stagnant and unable to get the team back in the game.
This time the Irish at least prettied up the scoreboard a bit with a late touchdown, but otherwise the parallels between this game and the 2018 Cotton Bowl were surreal and deeply, deeply depressing. Ian Book was repeatedly sacked and forced out of the pocket, and Clemson’s defense did an excellent job taking away his ability to make plays on scramble drills. Meanwhile the Irish running attack, which had been productive early on, was completely stymied as the offensive line lost the battle up front.
The whole year, we had the pleasure of watching an Irish team that had physically upped its game compared to years past, but that team unfortunately didn’t show yesterday.
This Isn’t The End, Folks
Irish fans have every reason to be disappointed after what happened in Charlotte. We all wanted to see this team soar to new heights. We all wanted to see them roll in, break the ACC and roll out. And most of all, none of us wanted to experience that sinking feeling of defeat again. I myself had the good fortune of leaving right after the game to attend a (small and COVID-compliant) wedding with an open bar, which was a great help for the remainder of the evening.
But this is where I want to remind everyone: this wasn’t the last game of the season, and the ACC Championship isn’t the only one this team set out to win. We’ve seen Brian Kelly and Ian Book bounce back from losses like this before. They aren’t quitting. Daelin Hayes? Kyren Williams? Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah? Not quitting.
The path forward is daunting, but there is still a chance for this Irish team to redeem itself. Don’t give up on them yet.