The takes came hot and heavy in the summer when the Irish were initially ranked as a top 5 team in the polls. Fans and media members alike from across the country called the Irish overrated — and more specifically, “overrated every year,” despite plenty of evidence to the contrary over the last five seasons.
Then a ton of bricks hit Irish fans and the program itself. Those bricks came in the form of a hard fought loss to the Ohio State Buckeyes on the road, and the disastrous home opener against Marshall in which they lost the game and the starting quarterback to injury.
It took a 3 game winning streak just to show a 3-2 record (simple math) and to help win hearts and minds back about Marcus Freeman’s job performance and the direction of the program. One more terrible game showed its face, and Notre Dame lost to Stanford — at home.
Marcus Freeman talked before about how he believes this is a good football team that doesn’t play very good at times. It’s a simple description for what looks like a complex problem, but maybe he was right — and maybe in his first year as a head coach he is starting to figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Notre Dame’s dominance over #16 Syracuse in the JMI Dome was slightly overlooked nationally, because, well... it was Syracuse. Despite really unveiling itself as a physical power on the field that can be a real base moving forward — it was still Syracuse.
The “real Notre Dame” according to pundits and fans was surely going to show up on Saturday night against Clemson. The Irish were home dogs, and regardless of lines and spreads, people thought this was going to be another Irish loss to a top five team.
Of course... that didn’t happen. Notre Dame didn’t wilt under the lights in South Bend, and Notre Dame didn’t look like the national joke some fans tried to make them out to be.
Notre Dame kicked Clemson’s ass.
After three quarters of play, Clemson had just 75 yards of offense and zero points. Notre Dame shutdown everything the Tigers wanted to do on offense, and mostly did it by using pressure with its front four and very, very good tackling by the entire unit as a whole.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame’s offense played the role of a type of enforcer. The Irish were more physical than Clemson across the board, but it was in the trenches where it showed the most. Both Logan Diggs and Audric Estime ran for over 100 yards, and even Drew Pyne had a rushing touchdown. The Irish quarterback had a mostly underwhelming game, but it was all that Notre Dame needed to continually impose its will on the Tigers.
Perhaps the most impressive drive of the night for either team was Notre Dame’s 11 play, 78 yarder for that Pyne rushing touchdown that almost ended the first half. Notre Dame only passed once out of those eleven plays, and honestly, Pyne should have tucked and followed Mayer to the endzone rather than the flip for a few yards.
When the 4th quarter came, that 14-0 lead looked like it was too much for Clemson to overcome, and that quickly turned into a 21-0 lead thanks to a Benjamin Morrison interception that gave birth to a short touchdown drive, and then shortly after it became 28-0 because Benjamin Morrison took an interception 96 yards to the house.
Even when Clemson finally got into the endzone, Notre Dame went right back down the field for the throat cut that was a record-setting touchdown reception by Michael Mayer.
Did we even talk about the punt block for touchdown to start the game? No — I didn’t and that says a lot about what we saw.
Maybe Notre Dame really is a top 5 — or at least a top 10 — team? Maybe they just needed a minute just like Marcus Freeman talked about. This win over #4 Clemson wasn’t the result of some fluky thing or some type of nonsense. Notre Dame did the same thing that they’ve been doing this year that’s been successful for them, and they did it even better in front of a thirsty home crowd.
From what I’ve seen this season across the country, our expectations for Notre Dame this year were almost definitely overrated, but the team itself and its potential on Saturdays feels like a top 10 team for sure. They have played bad enough to lose to almost anyone this year, and against Clemson they played good enough to beat almost anyone. No, I’m not crying out “we want Georgia” anytime soon, but I’m not going to suffer any more “overrated” talk either.
Notre Dame can line up and physically go toe to toe with teams and impose its will on them, and I’ll take that tonight and for the rest of the season.