Snap Judgments: ND vs. Clemson

CLEMSON, S.C. – Irish offensive line offers another example of establishing high hopes and then failing to do the job in the running game against a formidable front.

• Brian Kelly needs another analyst…or a mathematician…or somebody on his staff who is a) clever enough to figure out how to handle the tricky one- and two-point decisions and b) courageous enough to tell the Irish head coach when his conversion decision-making is cockeyed.

Kelly’s decision to go for two points with the score 21-9 in favor of Clemson with 14:13 remaining is not that difficult to figure out and another example of why you don’t chase points until you absolutely have to.

It’s simple: kick the extra point to make it an 11-point game because when Clemson kicks a field goal on the ensuring drive, you’re now down by 14 points and simply need two touchdowns and the adjoining placekicks to send the game into overtime.

But Kelly went for two, Corey Robinson continued to play in a fog, and the two-point conversion was unsuccessful, leaving the Irish down by 12 and then 15 less than four minutes later.

• Notre Dame’s offensive line was annihilated by the Clemson defense front early on, which was disappointing for those who had christened the Irish line a dominating unit after four games. The fact of the matter is that Texas, Virginia and UMass all ranked 105th or worse in scoring defense, and Georgia Tech – which was 43rd heading into this weekend – continued its implosion.

To the offensive line’s credit, its pass blocking was very good against Clemson, but the Tigers came into this game with just seven sacks in three games. They’re not a good pass rushing team, but they are a fine run-stopping team. The Tigers made the Irish one-dimensional by holding them to 22 yards rushing on 10 carries in the first quarter and seven for 19 yards in the second quarter.

By the second half, particularly after the Irish fell behind by 18 points, the emphasis had to be on the passing game, and DeShone Kizer was up to the challenge. Over four quarters, Clemson’s defensive front of ends Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd, and tackles Carlos Watkins and Scott Pagano, with an active linebacking corps behind it, held the Irish to 116 yards rushing on 33 carries, which averaged out to a disappointing 3.5 yards per carry.

Lawson had 3 ½ tackles for loss in the first quarter. Dodd added another 3 ½ tackles behind the line of scrimmage. All told, they had nine stops behind the line out of 33 runs, which is 27.2 percent of Notre Dame’s rushing attempts. Those are numbers that make it difficult to win. In the battle of star players –Lawson versus left tackle Ronnie Stanley – the first-year Tiger starter controlled the guy that has been pegged for first-round draft status since last season.

Left guard Quenton Nelson was called for a pair of holds and right tackle Mike McGlinchey was nabbed for a couple of false starts. Right guard Steve Elmer had a head of steam on Kizer’s final two-point conversion run and got bounced back into Kizer’s lap. Credit to red-shirt freshman Alex Bars for performing well in the absence of Nelson, who suffered a sprained left ankle. The Irish might want to put Bars in competition with Elmer.

Clemson’s defense lost eight starters to graduation. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year. While Tiger observers were saying the defense was just as good as ever – Clemson led the nation last year in total defense – they hadn’t exactly been challenged by their September schedule. The Tiger defense appears to be for real once again.

• Notre Dame came into the game with a distinct advantage in the match-up of the defensive line against Clemson’s offensive line…on paper. On the field, Deshaun Watson and the makeshift offensive line netted 104 yards on its first 11 snaps (9.4-yard average). Over its final 53 snaps, it netted 192 yards (3.6).

Clearly, the Clemson offense went into a shell throughout much of the second half (with the exception of a sudden-change touchdown during that early flurry to start the third period). But give the Notre Dame defense credit for bouncing back from a horrendous start, which angered Mike linebacker Joe Schmidt so much that steam was coming out of his ears well after the game ended.

As Irish Illustrated’s Tim O’Malley pointed out, the first two drives count too, so you can’t just exclude the first 6:17 of the game as if it didn’t happen or was an aberration. You have to catch up to the speed of the action from the outset, particularly on the road, and the Irish didn’t do that.

If Cole Luke comes to play when the game starts and the rest of the defense isn’t a sieve in the opening two drives, Notre Dame wins this football game.

The notion prior to the start of the game was that Notre Dame was the better team. That still stands, although four turnovers to one in a game like this is going to cost you virtually every time. Even with the turnovers, however, a two-point conversion sends the game into overtime.

• What has happened to Corey Robinson? His catch-less game against LSU in the Music City Bowl featured a couple of drops. After failing to seriously challenge Chris Brown for the starting W job in the pre-season, he caught two passes for 35 yards in the opener against Texas. Playing time has been hard to come by with just one grab in each of the next two games, and then the pre-game knee injury against UMass.

Perhaps still hobbled coming into the Clemson game, he had a chance to put himself back on the map when DeShone Kizer made a great play fake to his left and launched a strike to Robinson at the goal line with 1:29 left in the first half on a 3rd-and-10 from the Clemson 49. Granted, several receivers dropped passes in the first half. But Robinson was facing a “crossroads” type opportunity, and as he tried to high point the pass, the football slipped through his hands.

Instead of being down 14-10 at halftime with the third-quarter kickoff coming their way, the Irish ultimately had to punt and still trailed by 11 at the intermission. Then the third quarter started disastrously and the Irish were in catch-up mode the rest of the way.

Robinson had another chance for redemption on Kelly’s ill-advised two-point decision early in the fourth quarter. In fact, he could have bailed his head coach/team out. But he a) failed to be on the field for the attempt, which cost the Irish a valuable timeout and b) appeared to mistime his jump, and then failed to make a challenging but catchable ball.

Not sure why Robinson is in such a funk, but two years after making a surprising mark during his rookie season, he’s become a shell of the player he once was and has failed to trend up from his promising first and second seasons.


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