At many points this year, watching the Notre Dame Fighting Irish has been a chore; in a few it has been a pleasure. Last night, it was a privilege. Nearly two years to the day since the last time they stormed the field against an undefeated Clemson Tigers team, Irish fans got to do it again after a beautifully physical and punishing 35-14 victory.
The Irish dominated in every phase of this game this week and there are a great many things I would like to talk about - with that said, let’s pick out three.
One of the more surprising developments in this game was how thoroughly Notre Dame’s defensive backs dominated Clemson’s receivers. Yes, it was a windy night and we knew this wasn’t the Clemson of old with Tee Higgins and Justyn Ross roaming the outside, but so far we had seen the Irish secondary play mostly stable but unremarkable football, failing to generate turnovers and showing a susceptibility to big plays. But on Saturday night, the Irish completely denied the Tigers the ability to move the ball downfield, with DJ Uiagelelei’s longest completion of the night a 22-yard toss to Davis Allen. Benjamin Morrison’s two interceptions, one for a touchdown, headlined a dominating performance from the secondary as a whole, as the Tigers repeatedly attempted to exploit them downfield and saw their passes broken up, falling incomplete or simply not thrown due to the effectiveness of the coverage. The Irish held the Tigers to an incredible 4.9 yards per pass attempt.
Morrison is deserving of praise here not only because of his big-play heroics but because of his consistently solid coverage throughout a game where it was clear the Tigers thought they could pick on him. Time and again the Tigers went toward Morrison’s man, and time and again the ball hit the turf and/or his hands. Tariq Bracy also brought great energy from the nickel slot, notching four tackles including a sack. The next big challenge for the Irish secondary comes on Nov. 26 in Los Angeles, and last night they gave us plenty of reason to be hopeful for it.
O-Line Dominance Activated
A glass-half-empty person might look at last night’s efforts on the offensive line and ask where the hell that effort was against Marshall and Stanford. And while they would have a point, I’m choosing the glass-half-full approach of simply marveling at what Harry Hiestand’s unit was able to do last night against a defensive line composed mostly of future NFL starters. Even the relatively maligned members of Notre Dame’s front such as Zeke Correll and Josh Lugg rose to the occasion and dominated their opponents in orange all night, moving the line of scrimmage forward and powering an incredibly efficient rushing attack (the Irish rushed for 5.6 yards per carry). Joe Alt and Blake Fisher provided great protection on the edge and showed incredible athleticism leading the way in the run game.
My favorite running play of this game came with about 10 minutes left in the second quarter. Logan Diggs took the ball and headed to the right edge behind a pulling Jarrett Patterson while Lugg and Fisher perfectly sealed a running lane. Diggs moved patiently behind Patterson and rode his block all the way to the marker to set up a second-and-one. Why do I love this play so much? It’s a perfect picture of an Irish running game that was doing whatever it wanted, even against a powerful Clemson d-line. The Tigers may be down from what they were a couple years ago, but that front isn’t; it was simply an elite performance from an O-line that finally played up to its lofty potential.
The Culture is Shifting
It’s difficult to capture just how thoroughly the vibe around this Irish program has shifted in a mere four weeks. Fan pessimism in the early-mid season was at a high not seen in a long time for Notre Dame, and players and coaches were visibly frustrated. That made it all the more impressive when Marcus Freeman’s team came out on Saturday and far outmatched the Tigers in their belief, focus and will-to-win. On a cold and windy night, the Irish nonetheless gained strength as the evening went on, feeding off that belief and a crowd that was more energized than any we had seen probably going back to the 2014 Michigan game. This is a team that has already grown incredibly over the course of its season. With three weeks and a bowl game left, there are plenty of opportunities for them to grow even more.
After the disastrous losses early in the season, fans wondered how members of Notre Dame’s vaunted 2023 recruiting class - many of whom were in attendance on Saturday night - could want to be part of a program surrounded by so much negativity and uncertainty. But after what we saw Saturday night, the question is not how they could not want to? This is a win for which Irish fans have waited a long time, and a chance at redemption for a team that seemed hopelessly lost. Soak it in, Irish fans; it’s a beautiful time to be alive.