Clemson returned to the College Football Playoff for the 4th consecutive year to face the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl. The Tigers were strongly favored but the Irish came in with a very balanced team on both sides of the ball. ND likes to run the ball and the Tiger defense is one of the best teams against the run. Would the suspension of mountainous run-stopper Dexter Lawrence have an effect on the outcome?
Clemson won the toss and deferred. B.T. Potter put the kickoff into the end zone and ND took the fair catch. Starting at the 25, Irish RB Dexter WIlliams picked up 11 on 1st down. A false start penalty put the Irish at 1st & 10. ND fumbled on the next play but recovered it. On 3rd & 10 the Irish could have converted but their WR couldn’t come down with the pass and they had to punt. Amari Rodgers took the fair catch at the Tiger 14. Travis Etienne was stopped at the line of scrimmage on 1st down. ND brought the heat on 2nd and Trevor Lawrence got away but couldn’t complete it. On 3rd down Lawrence couldn’t connect with Tee Higgins and Clemson had to punt. Will Spiers didn’t get it away cleanly and ND took over at the Tiger 49.
On 1st down, ND QB Ian Book had good protection but the Tigers eventually got pressure on him as he scrambled. The ball came out and Clelin Ferrell recovered it. The initial call was that he was down but the play was reviewed and Clemson got the ball at the Tiger 47. Higgins picked up 7 on 1st down and Rodgers picked up enough to move the chains. Etienne got 8 on 1st down. Lawrence scrambled looking for Hunter Renfrow but ended up having to throw it away. On 3rd & 2, Lawrence flipped a screen pass out to Etienne who picked up the 1st down. Tavien Feaster picked up 3 yards up the middle. Feaster then whiffed a block but Lawrence evaded the defender and hit Rodgers for a short gain. That brought 3rd & 7 and Lawrence tried to hit Justyn Ross under heavy pressure from the Irish defense. The ball fell incomplete and Greg Huegel came in to kick a FG that put the Tigers up 3-0. At this point, the Tiger offensive line had their hands full trying to keep Irish defenders off their QB.
Potter put the kickoff into the end zone. ND ran into the teeth of the Tiger defense and got nothing on 1st down and repeated it on 2nd down to bring up 3rd & 10. ND ran a nice screen to convert and on the next play they tried to go deep. Trayvon Mullen was called for pass interference. Williams picked up 6 on 1st down and then the Irish moved the chains with a pass over the middle. The Tigers got pressure on Book, but he scrambled free to get a 1st down. The Tigers forced 3rd & 6 and ND could only get 4, setting up a FG attempt. The kick was good and the game was tied 3-3.
Derion Kendrick took the kickoff in the end zone and unwisely decided to bring it out. He got caught near the sideline at the 15 and had the ball stripped. ND recovered it but review showed that the ball was about an inch out of bounds and the Tigers were fortunate to retain possession. Lawrence kept an RPO and picked up 3. On 2nd down he tried to hit Renfrow but the pass was high and Renfrow couldn’t hang onto it. On 3rd down, the two hooked up to convert. Rodgers picked up 5 and then Etienne got stopped at the line of scrimmage to bring up 3rd & 5. ND got pressure on Lawrence and he scrambled but couldn’t find anyone open, although Etienne had a step on his man. Spiers punted and the Irish took over at their 32.
The Irish got a 1st down on a nice catch by their WR but on the next play, Ferrell sacked Book to end the 1st quarter. The Irish got a couple more 1st downs but eventually couldn’t convert a 3rd & 3. They went for it on 4th and the Clemson defense got pressure on Book who lobbed a pass down the sideline but Isaiah Simmons knocked it down. The Tigers took over and got 7 yards on an Adam Choice run and moved the chains with a pass to Trevion Thompson. Then as the TV announcers were going on about how ND doesn’t give up big plays, Lawrence hit Ross down the sideline for a 52-yard TD. The extra point was blocked, making the score 9-3 Tigers.
The Irish ran on 1st and 2nd down to pick up 8 but they couldn’t convert on 3rd down and punted. Yes, once again opposing punters were booming 50+ yard punts but Rodgers brought it back 10 yards to the Tiger 23. Etienne picked up 4 on 1st down. Higgins got 2 yards on a WR screen bringing up 3rd & 4. Rodgers converted on a slant pass out to the 36. Etienne picked up 3 on 1st down. Lawrence was targeting Rodgers on 2nd down but it was knocked down at the line. Lawrence had good protection on 3rd down and hit Ross over the middle to pick up 35 yards. A couple of plays later, Higgins was wide open in the end zone but dropped it. There was a holding penalty on the play, though, and it 2nd & 17. Lawrence took off for 10 yards to make it 3rd & 7. from the Irish 24. The Tiger OL once again got pushed around and Lawrence was sacked. Huegel booted an ugly FG kick that went wide left. Being a former placement holder, it looked to me like holder Will Swinney didn’t quiet get it down cleanly.
ND moved into Tiger territory on a pass that Mullen got turned around on. The Tiger defense forced a 3rd & 10 and then feasted on Dexter Williams who wanted to get to the outside but X-Man Xavier Thomas was there to put and end to that thinking. After the punt, the Tigers took over at their 15. Etienne picked up a tough 3 yards on 1st down and Ross caught a screen and picked up 6 with some hard running after the catch. Lawrence kept an RPO and picked up the 1st down. On the next play he hit Renfrow on a bootleg out to the 41. Another Lawrence scramble pushed the ball into Irish territory. He then went to Renfrow down the sideline and the Irish defender was called for holding. A couple of ineffective plays led to 3rd & 9. A false start on Tremaine Anchrum made it 3rd & 14. Lawrence then threw a strike to Ross down the seam for a 42-yard TD. Huegel’s kick was good and the Tigers were up 16-3 with just under two minutes left in the half.
ND went into their 2-minute drill but the Tiger defense held. With 55 seconds left, the Tigers called timeout hoping to have enough time after the punt to get another score. After the punt sailed into the end zone, Clemson had it from their 20 yard line with 48 seconds left. They moved it down the field effectively. Lawrence hit Renfrow down to the Irish 34 and a roughing the passer penalty moved it to the 19 with 9 seconds left. Lawrence hit then Higgins in the back of the end zone. The Irish defender tipped the ball but Higgins kept his eyes on it and pulled it in before falling out of the back of the end zone. It was close, but after review the call was upheld and Clemson went into halftime up 23-3.
Clemson took the touchback on the second half kickoff and started at the 25. Renfrow picked up 4 on 1st down. Then Lawrence hit Higgins for 25 yards down to the Irish 47. A tipped pass appeared to be intercepted but review ruled that the ND defender did not get possession before the ball hit the ground. On 2nd & 10, Etienne picked up 2 yards. Lawrence tried to hit Higgins down the sideline but Tee was being mauled by the defender. No flag was thrown and the Tigers had to punt. A fair catch put the Irish on their 13. The Tiger defense forced 3rd & 5 and they had Book in their sights but he got free for the 1st down. A pass interference penalty and some good plays by the Irish moved the ball into Tiger territory. On 3rd & 7 at the Tiger 35, Simmons got to Book for the sack as he scrambled, forcing the Irish to punt. The Irish downed the punt at the 2 yard line.
Etienne pushed it out to the 4 and Lawrence hit Ross on an out route at the 15 for the 1st down. Etienne then got outside for 10 yards. I got the distinct impression that the Irish defense was beginning to tire and Etienne was primed to get loose. Lawrence was sacked on the next play to make it 2nd & 17. TE Milan Richard couldn’t make the catch and then the Irish got pressure on Lawrence on 3rd down, forcing him to throw it away. Spiers got a 42-yard punt off and the Irish took over at their 40. A false start pushed the Irish back to the 35. Williams picked up 11 and on 2nd down pressure forced Book to throw the ball away, making it 3rd & 4. Williams picked up the 1st down and then Book hit a 20-yard throw to move it down to the Tiger 26. Austin Bryant got to Book on the next play for the sack. Bryant got to him again and it was 3rd & 22. Book tried to force a throw into coverage but Nolan Turner picked it off and returned it to the Tiger 45. Bryant was called for an unsportsmanlike penalty for pulling his helmet off on the field. A few plays later, Etienne took off untouched for 62 yards to score. The score was 30-3 and you could just feel that the game was slipping away from the Irish.
The Irish took over at the 25 and got a 1st down. X-Man tracked down Williams from behind and stuffed him for a loss. On 3rd down, Simmons then appeared to take the ball away from an Irish defender as he tackled him. The officials didn’t agree and said the forward progress of the runner was stopped before the strip. The 3rd quarter ended before ND could punt. When the 4th quarter started, the Irish punted and it went into the end zone. Clemson took over at the 25. Feaster got loose for 23 yards. Two plays later, T.J. took a WR screen for 13 yards into ND territory. Feaster had a couple of tough runs to bring up 3rd & 2 at the Irish 36. He then got outside for 9 yards to move the chains. A Chase catch and Feaster run brought up 3rd & 3. Lawrence rolled out and hit Thompson but he was short by a yard. On 4th & 1, Etienne got hit in the backfield but he kept his legs moving and got the 1st down. Will Swinney picked up 2 yards on a jet sweep. Etienne then fumbled and the Irish recovered at the 11.
On 1st down, Shaq Smith destroyed WIlliams on a rush, throwing him aside like a rag doll, and sacked Book. Book scrambled for 5 on 2nd down and then was running for his life for from X-Man on 3rd down, ending up a yard short. They did convert on 4th. The Tigers then held the Irish on 3rd & 3, forcing a punt. Clemson took over at their 29. Chase Bryce came in at QB and Lyn-J Dixon got 5 yards on 1st down and another 5 on 2nd. A 1st down pass to Diondre Overton fell incomplete and Dixon was stuffed for a 3-yard loss on 2nd. Bryce couldn’t connect with Overton on 3rd down, forcing a punt.
The Irish couldn’t do much against the second string Tiger defense. A poor punt gave the Tigers the ball at the Irish 49. I was beginning to think that the players were shutting down but Bryce hadn’t gotten that memo and ran for 23 yards on 3rd down. Then Coach Swinney clearly told the offense to let up and run the clock out. Clemson headed for the National Championship game with a 30-3 win over the Irish.
Now we have to wait a few hours to see who the Tigers will face in that championship game. Check back with us STS for reviews of today’s game and previews of the opponent in the National Championship. Who would you like to see the Tigers face? Let us k ow in the comments section below.