Make no mistake, Clemson has a very good-to-great rush defense, although Appalachian State rushed for 202 yards against the Tigers, which Clemson then compensated for with a 28-carry, 19-yard performance against Louisville.
But the C.J. Prosise-led rushing attack behind an offensive line that was being touted as truly dynamic never did get much push on the ground against the Tigers. The Irish had 10 carries for 22 yards in the first period, seven carries for 19 yards in the second quarter, 10 for 52 yards in the third quarter, and six for 13 yards in the fourth.
Prosise finished with just 50 yards on 15 carries (3.3-yard average and without a rushing attempt in the fourth quarter) while DeShone Kizer ultimately led Notre Dame in rushing yardage with 60 yards on 15 carries, including a three-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter that was part of a three-touchdown barrage over the final 15 minutes. Kizer had a 26-yard run, but Prosise’s longest run was just 10 yards and he lost his first fumble as a running back.
The Irish were unable to strike a balance in their offense with 73.4 percent of their output coming through the air. Notre Dame was held an astonishing 169.5 yards under its per-game rushing average coming in.
If the grade were just for DeShone Kizer, it would be in the A range. He completed 19-of-34 (55.8 percent) for 321 yards and two touchdowns, but five passes were dropped. If two of those five drops were caught, he would have been in the 62 percent range.
Kizer wasn’t under a ton of pressure from the pedestrian Clemson pass rush, but he continued to maneuver well within the pocket, found open receivers, showed exceptional touch during torrential rain interludes, and was the driving force behind Notre Dame’s three-touchdown fourth quarter. Credit to the offensive line for remaining solid in one area (pass blocking) while falling woefully short in the other (run blocking).
Kizer had a bad interception when it looked like it could be game-ending, and he was sacked four times. But the Irish were in desperation mode throughout the second half when Kizer had to hang in there and try to force something out of nothing. He missed a couple of wide-open receivers along the way, but the Irish would have had no chance without his surprisingly mature performance.
None of the drops were bigger than Corey Robinson’ inability to corral a jump ball at the goal line right before the end of the first half that would have pulled the Irish to within four despite the horrendous start. The second most critical drop – or inability to pull in a challenging high throw – was the two-point conversion throw to Robinson early in the fourth quarter that would have reduced the margin to 10.
Lockdown Clemson cornerback Mackenzie Alexander contained Will Fuller to two catches for 37 yards. It also was just the third game in the last 18 that Fuller did not score a touchdown. Chris Brown continues to be a supplementary weapon to Fuller in the passing game (four catches, 83 yards), but his fumble inside the Clemson five with 2:07 remaining was a critical mistake.
While C.J. Prosise was held to less than 100 yards rushing for the first time since the season-opener, he had four catches for 100 yards, including a 56-yarder that kick-started the Irish early in the fourth quarter.
Although the Irish were just 4-of-12 on third down, Kizer made third-down conversion throws to Brown, Torii Hunter, Jr., and huge connections with Prosise for 23 yards on 3rd-and-8 and Amir Carlisle for 20 yards on 3rd-and-16 to keep Notre Dame’s hopes alive. Kizer carried the passing game until his receivers started stepping up with the game on the line.
If there was one unit that was expected to hold an advantage over the Tigers, it was Notre Dame’s defensive line versus Clemson’ offensive line. The Tigers lost their best player up front to the NFL supplemental draft at the end of spring, their starting center two weeks ago, and were hobbled at right tackle.
Yet the Tigers managed to rush for 199 yards on 42 carries (4.7-yard average), led by running back Wayne Gallman (22 carries, 98 yards) and quarterback Deshaun Watson (16 carries, 93 yards), who had a touchdown and a 38-yard run to jump start the offense. Clemson frequently gashed Notre Dame’s defensive front. Between them, Gallman and Watson averaged 5.0 yards on 38 carries.
But the Tigers only finished with 15 first downs and 5-of-15 on third down, most of which were incompletions. The only rushing touchdown was a 21-yarder by Watson, although that came on a 3rd-and-2 on a sudden-change defensive situation early in the third quarter. The Tigers rarely tried to run on third down with the Irish stuffing Watson on a 3rd-and-2 as Clemson tried valiantly to run out the clock. Most of Clemson’s rushing damage came on first and second down.
The way the game began, it appeared that Clemson would be able to run and throw at will against the Irish. Less than seven minutes into the game, Deshaun Watson already had two touchdown passes and 52 yards through the air. Yet he would add just 45 passing yards over the final 53:43 on 7-of-17 passing.
Wide receiver Artavis Scott scored at the 8:43 mark of the first quarter. He would finish with just five catches for 43 yards, and three of those were shovel passes – virtual handoffs – for 21 yards. No other Clemson receiver would snag more than two receptions.
Watson was 11-of-22 for 97 yards, although he was not sacked. His interception (by Cole Luke) in the end zone late in the third quarter was critical since the Tigers already were up by 18 points.
Notre Dame had just three quarterback hurries – two by Romeo Okwara early and one by Joe Schmidt. The Irish had zero passes broken up, although that’s now two games in a row with an interception after going five straight games (dating back to 2014) without a pick.
Notre Dame’s kick coverage was, for the most part, abysmal with four returns accounting for 128 yards (32.0-yard average) with a series of missed tackles and missed opportunities to alter the field position.
Amir Carlisle tippy-toed one too many kickoffs and lost his job to C.J. Sanders, who responded immediately with a 46-yard return. But Sanders fumbled the opening kickoff to start the second half and became very tentative fielding punts. Not only wouldn’t he field them in the rain, he didn’t even track a couple.
Justin Yoon – who came into the game with two missed field goals and two missed extra points – nailed a 46-yarder on his only field-goal attempt of the game in the first quarter. Tyler Newsome shanked a 15-yard punt (with the wind) on the first of his seven attempts, but was in the 41-yard range the rest of the night, including four punts inside the 20.
The Irish benefitted from a missed field goal by Greg Huegel from 45 yards with under five minutes left in the game.
The Irish did some good things, but a fumbled kickoff when trailing by 11 points at halftime and badly in need of a good start in the third quarter is a critical mistake, which Clemson immediately turned into a touchdown.
When a team comes out flat on the road – fair or not – that falls on the head coach. The Notre Dame defense wasn’t ready for the speed that Clemson’s offense offered in the first two series. The offensive line was pushed off the ball throughout the first half and the unit scored just three points during the first 45 minutes. The special teams were inconsistent, particularly on kick coverage, and the team failed to protect the football with all four turnovers coming in the second half.
And yet credit has to go to Kelly and his staff – much like it did after the woeful start to the Arizona State game last year – for keeping the players’ heads in the game, getting them to believe they could overcome an 18-point deficit heading into the fourth quarter, and then seeing the skill position players who were dropping passes early in the game suddenly begin to make clutch catches.
Kelly’s two-point conversion blunder – eight games after his previous conversion mistake against Northwestern last November – is simply inexcusable. By kicking the extra point after making it 21-9, the Irish would have been down 14 when Clemson kicked a field goal minutes later. Instead, it was a 15-point deficit, which led to the failed two-point conversion run by DeShone Kizer with seven seconds left in the game.
Say what you want about Kelly, his teams don’t quit. But they also don’t always start out with the composure you’d like on the road (Arizona State out-scored them 38-0 in a 22-minute span last year), before wiggling their way back into games, which says the team believes in him and his staff, and that winning is important (if not urgent when the game begins).