CLEMSON, S.C. – In the end, weather didn’t stop Notre Dame.
Marring a wildly improbable comeback that felt dead more than once Saturday night, Brian Kelly gambled with Notre Dame’s College Football Playoff chances and lost on a couple two-point conversions that went bust.
The Irish needed the final one with seven seconds remaining after Torii Hunter Jr.’s one-yard touchdown catch pulled No. 6 Notre Dame within 24-22. Despite getting shut down by No. 11 Clemson’s rush defense all night, Kelly gave DeShone Kizer a run-option on the play. And Kelly said Kizer picked the correct option by following the right side of his offensive line.
But the rush didn’t sniff the goal line, snuffing out what could have been a historic comeback inside a soaked Memorial Stadium.
“Play is called, block our man, we’re in overtime,” said center Nick Martin. “Our program is past this. We’re too good of a team to come down here and lose this game.”
Notre Dame needed to go for that two-point conversion because Kelly tried another one early in the fourth quarter after Kizer hit CJ Prosise for a 56-yard touchdown to make it 21-9. After Kizer was forced to burn a timeout due to a personnel mix up, Corey Robinson dropped the ensuing pass.
“It seemed to be the right play at the time,” Kelly said.
Kelly said he wanted to cut Clemson’s lead to 10 points, banking that Notre Dame’s defense would shut down the Tigers the rest of the way. The Irish almost did after rebounding from a horrific start that put the Tigers up two touchdowns in less than seven minutes.
But even with Deshaun Watson at the controls, the Tigers did virtually nothing the rest of the game, at least not without an Irish turnover to help. Clemson finished with 296 yards total offense and six three-and-outs. The Tigers managed one first down in the entire fourth quarter.
That meant Notre Dame nearly survived Kizer’s interception and three lost fumbles.
The first came when CJ Sanders fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half, which Clemson turned into a three-play touchdown drive, capped by Watson’s 21-yard touchdown run. Prosise lost a fumble a snap later, a giveaway that seemed to end any realistic comeback shot.
Instead, even with Kizer’s fourth quarter pick and Chris Brown’s fumble at the three-yard line on what could have been a game-tying score, Notre Dame kept coming.
“You can’t beat Clemson turning the ball over four times and starting tentative on defense,” Kelly said. “Disappointed for them that they did not seize the opportunity that they had.
“Very easily, if they take care of the football and start fast, they’re gonna win the football game in my estimation.”
That’s hard to believe considering Kizer made his first road start without a run game in support. The Irish rushed for a season-low 116 yards with more than half coming from the quarterback. CJ Prosise finished with just 50 yards rushing. His first 10 carries netted just four yards.
Kizer carried Notre Dame in the second half and finished 19-of-34 for 321 yards and two touchdowns while also taking four sacks.
“I wish we could have supported him better,” Kelly said. “I’m really proud of him. I’m proud of the way he competed. He played well enough for us to win, let’s put it that way.”
Clemson corner Mackensie Alexander effectively covered Will Fuller out of the game plan, putting pressure on Brown, Corey Robinson and Torii Hunter Jr. All suffered drops, Fuller included. The All-American candidate didn’t score for the first time all season and finished with two catches for 37 yards.
“We can make excuses but we’ve gotta catch the ball,” Fuller said. “They were throwing a lot of coverages at me. I’m not accustomed to that. That was the first time I’ve got a lot of coverages thrown at me.”
Notre Dame’s final drive went six plays and 32 yards in 58 seconds, powered by big catches from Amir Carlisle and Prosise. The one-yard lob to Hunter followed. Then came the two-point conversion call that may define this season as much as an offensive pass interference flag marked the last one.
“There’s no excuse,” said Jaylon Smith. “It’s not about the preparation, we prepare great. It’s just about on Saturday, how well can you execute?
“It sucks whenever you lose.”