CLEMSON, S.C. – David Robinson grabbed hold of his son late Saturday night, embracing Corey beneath a water logged Memorial Stadium. It was an intensely personal moment in the wake of Notre Dame’s ragged rally, reserved for a father, his son and that Showtime boom mic that hovered directly above both of them.
That’s the reality Notre Dame signed up for this season, where virtually nothing will be private for Brian Kelly’s most talented team. The only certainty about what comes next is that it will fascinate and it will be recorded.
“We’ll see how we are when we face our adversity,” said center Nick Martin. “That’s how teams are formed.”
Like it or not, Notre Dame had its season defined here in this 24-22 loss as one team felt the elements more than the other. The Irish departed losers and looked talented enough to absorb the damage. If a team could show itself to be a College Football Playoff contender and pretender at the same time, Notre Dame did.
This was Florida State all over again, but without an official to blame. A year ago when the Irish came up seconds short in their first primetime road test it was supposed proof Notre Dame could trade punches with title contenders. Then the season collapsed under the weight of turnovers, injuries and a bizarre two-point conversion.
This Notre Dame team is better than that one, but they suffered those same three indignities at Clemson with four turnovers, six season-ending injuries before kickoff and another two-point conversion that was an unnecessary gamble. Yet where Notre Dame was locked into last year’s trip to Tallahassee, this time the Irish needed a full half before engaging.
What should enrage Kelly most isn’t the four turnovers in the second half. That’s the cost of doing business in a frantic rainstorm rally. What should eat at Notre Dame’s head coach is that his program forgot their opening lines in their biggest performance.
“We’re too far along in our program,” Kelly said. “I was disappointed for them that they did not seize the opportunity that they had.”
The defense opened the game with no answers, carved up on back-to-back touchdown drives, then shut down Deshaun Watson for the rest of the game. An offensive line hyped as Notre Dame’s best since Lou Holtz got shoved backward by a front seven gutted last off-season. Will Fuller, Notre Dame’s potential All-American receiver, got covered out of the game by Mackensie Alexander and the Tigers secondary.
In every phase, Notre Dame was not ready to play on Saturday night.
“If you told me we’d turn the ball over four times, I would have told you we would lose,” Kelly said. “You don’t have to be a genius to figure that out. We turned the ball over four times and we lost.”
Yet Notre Dame also almost won with four turnovers, each one looking like more of a Death Valley sentence than the last. The Irish amazed in their ability to overcome adversity of their own making, from CJ Sanders’ fumbled kickoff return to CJ Prosise’s lost carry to DeShone Kizer’s forced interception to Chris Brown’s heartbreaking homecoming fumble.
Every one of those turnovers could have ended Notre Dame’s night, but Kizer wouldn’t let that happen. Simply put, Kizer was the best quarterback on the field and maybe Notre Dame’s most mature player. Before the season Kelly wondered if Kizer could manage a game. Then he wondered if Kizer could win one. Now it looks like the red-shirt freshman can play playoff contending football.
So while there are parallels between losses at Clemson and Florida State, Kizer’s development should be enough to start a new track for this season. Kelly and Mike Sanford have done a tremendous job coaching up a player who looked like a mop-up quarterback during spring ball.
Notre Dame has already endured as much injury pain this season as last, but with a quarterback capable of in-season development, the first loss shouldn’t wreck a second-straight year.
“What do we want out of this season?” said linebacker Jaylon Smith. “It’s not about the preparation, we prepare great. It’s just about on Saturday, how well can you execute?”
It might feel like Notre Dame lost everything inside Memorial Stadium. But really the Irish only lost their safety net. They are now fringe contenders for the College Football Playoffs but they at least remain serious contenders.
Whatever happens next in home dates with Navy and USC followed by tricky trips to Temple and Pittsburgh, we’ll all watch. After all, the evolution of Brian Kelly’s program will be televised. It should still be a better show than last year.