Not once, not twice, but thrice.
Clemson started fast to begin the first and third quarter, Notre Dame did not, and that reality coupled with an ill-fated decision to chase points early in the fourth quarter was all that mattered as No. 12 Clemson hung on to defeat the sixth-ranked Irish, 24-22 in Death Valley.
That and four critical turnovers by the visitors.
Notre Dame fumbled on its first two touches of the second stanza: C.J. Sanders on the kickoff and C.J. Prosise thereafter, later turning it over on back-to-back possessions in the fourth, first on a DeShone Kizer interception, then a fumble by Chris Brown who was struggling to score at the shadow of the Clemson goal line.
“If you told me we were going to turn the ball over four times I would tell you that we were going to lose,” said Kelly. “You don’t have to be a genius to figure that out. We turned the ball over four times and we lost.
One in particular surrounded Kelly’s decision to forgo an extra point that would have cut Clemson’s deficit to 21-10 after a 56-yard C.J. Prosise catch and run drew the Irish drew to within 21-9 with 14:13 to play. At that point, Kelly elected for a two-point conversion pass, failing on the attempt to keep the margin at 12.
“To get to within 10, obviously a touchdown and a field goal,” said Kelly of the reasoning for his decision. “So we wouldn’t have to score two touchdowns. We knew we’d have the wind (at their backs) – it seemed to be the right play.”
The Irish were forced to go for two points again at the contest’s conclusion as a result, coming up short on a DeShone Kizer run over the right side.
“It was a run-pass option,” said Kizer. “The (pre-snap) run option was there. At that point it’s man vs. man; heart vs. heart. We blocked it the way we were supposed to block it. I didn’t lower my shoulder the way I should have and didn’t get the yards we needed.”
The Tigers were the aggressors early, scoring twice in the first 6:17, the second touchdown aided by advantageous field position as a result of a shanked Irish punt that staked the hosts to first down at the Notre Dame 40-yard line.
Clemson’s first 11 plays yielded 104 yards and 14 points. They gained just 192 yards on the 53 plays that followed.
“Very disappointed in them,” said Kelly of what he told his team following the contest. “We’re not here for moral victories. We’re too far along in our program. We have to come down here and we have to beat Clemson.
“I was disappointed for them,” he clarified. “That they did not seize the opportunity that they had.”
Notre Dame finished with 437 yards including 381 from Kizer – a career-high 321 through the air.
“I wish we could have supported him better,” said Kelly. “I’m really proud of him. Proud of the way he competed. He played well enough for us to win.”
C.J. Prosise finished with 100 receiving yards on four receptions but could not get untracked on the ground, scuffling to 50 net yards on 15 carries including the aforementioned lost fumble.
“Give credit to Clemson, I thought that they came out fresh and aggressive and made things difficult for us early on. But certainly they carried the play in the first half.”
Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson finished with just 97 passing yards but did not commit a turnover and threw for two scores. He added what appeared to be a back-breaking 21-yard touchdown run on third down to open a 21-3 lead at the outset of the second stanza.
Notre Dame safety Max Redfield led all tacklers with 14 stops, but it was Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander that turned heads defensively, holding Irish star receiver Will Fuller to just two receptions for 37 yards.
The Irish (4-1) will host 5-0 Navy next week in South Bend.