Wow. Just wow. Even after giving this thing time to settle, that is all I can think to say about this game. This is the kind of game/night that we as Notre Dame fans have been waiting for, for a long time. It may be recency bias but, from an enjoyment factor (opponent, score, situation, etc) this was the best Notre Dame game I’ve ever watched. I know 2020 was a great memory for all of us and that night I will never forget. But there is something about this one that feels different. I think it starts with the fact that we were 5-3 entering the game. While the losses to Standford and Marshall stung big time, I’ve been saying they were oddly sobering considering the track record since 2016. We went so long winning the games we should have and not winning the ones we shouldn’t that we forgot this feeling. While we know this is not necessarily the same Clemson squad we are used to - when was the last time Notre Dame came in as an underdog and dominated against a top-tier team/program? The answer is not in my lifetime. Other than Oklahoma 2012 (maybe) this is a completely new feeling and I love it.
The defense is the reason I was wrong about this game. When making my prediction (21-20 Clemson) I had trusted that the defense would be able to hold this Clemson offense. I did not have trust in our offense to score enough to win. The defensive unit stepped up and went beyond the call of duty. If it weren’t for Dabo and the ACC subbing in the refs in the 4th, this is a 35-0 or 35-7 game. If you take away non-offensive touchdowns Notre Dame wins 21-14, which essentially means I was not way off on my prediction. The defense exceeded what I thought they would be able to do and I applaud them for it. They were flying around the field, Clemson looked much worse offensively than they had in the previous 8 games going into last night. Not only did they make them look bad, but they also made a group of very talented athletes look almost completely inept for 4 quarters. On top of that, a true freshman in Benjamin Morrison absolutely goes off and has an amazing game, then gives us a moment we will remember forever. Normally when good things happen I have no problem giving praise. But so many good things came out of this defense last night that I’m having a hard time explaining just how hyped I am about their performance. They had an attitude of “We know we can dominate you, and that’s what we are going to do” and they did. As I said we all know this Clemson offense is not the same as the Trevor Lawrence teams, but they had put points up against every other team they faced this year. Not only did Notre Dame not let Clemson score, but they couldn’t do anything whatsoever.
I wish there was more to talk about and break down regarding special teams. This unit deserves a column dedicated to them alone every single week. The scream I let out before high-stepping into my Dad’s kitchen after the blocked punt was the sound of pure joy. I thought there was no way Clemson could see how this unit has performed on tape and allow it to happen to them in a game like this. Not only did they allow it but it was blocked for a touchdown. This not only gave Notre Dame early momentum, but it set the tone for how the rest of the night would go. Clemson knew what Notre Dame wanted to do but couldn’t do anything to stop it. That’s also why the Clemson defense allowed 250+ rush yds. They knew we had to run it, considering we are working with a backup QB and they still allowed two rushers over 100 yds. While the offense definitely did not play great, we do have to remember this Clemson defense was the thing you could point to on their team and say is at least close to their standard this season. If we have a more talented QB under center this is easily a 40+ point win. I’m not trying to rag on Pyne because we know what we are going to get, I’m just saying there is a reason for a lot of optimism when looking at the future of this unit.
I think this game may be what we thought the Fiesta Bowl or the Ohio St game could be for Marcus Freeman. A coming out party for him, his team, and his vision for the future of the Notre Dame program. It’s ironic on the night Brian Kelly did something he had never done before in beating Nick Sabin, Marcus Freeman does something that Kelly was never able to do at Notre Dame. As a bonus, it was a massive recruiting night for the Irish and they dominated a program and a team that people look at as elite. With signing day rapidly approaching this was a massive performance. And from all reports from people in attendance, the crowd did more than pull their weight (please continue to do even in non-top 5 games) and created an amazing environment for this team and the recruits in attendance. Last night gave us reason to believe in what we thought Marcus Freeman and this program could be, and man was that fun.