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Clemson vs. Notre Dame: Tigers Beat the Irish 31-23

Clemson rides great defense and the legs of Phil Mafah to beat Notre Dame 31-23

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Clemson
Phil Mafah had a very productive day for the Tigers.
Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson returned to Death Valley today after a rough couple of weeks on the road to take on #15 Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish were clear favorites going into the game. With lots of injuries to key players on both sides of the ball, it was going to be a long haul from the start for the Tigers to get a victory. But the defense had a very solid game and the offense was able to limit mistakes and feed Phil Mafah the ball 36 times to beat the Irish 31-23.

Notre Dame got the ball first after Clemson won the toss and deferred. Their first drive illustrated what a team can do when they have a talented and well-coached offensive line. RB Audric Estime gained big chunks of yardage but the Tiger defense eventually clamped down and forced the Irish to settle for a 43-yard FG to take the lead 3-0 with 10:36 left in the 1st quarter. Clemson’s first drive started well with a couple of good runs by Phil Mafah, but after that things fell apart and they punted.

The next Irish drive was a demonstration of the talent of the Tiger DL and LBs as they tossed Irish linemen and backs aside to make TFLs and sacks. Hamp Greene returned the punt 16 yards to the ND 41, giving the Tiger offense great field position. On the 1st play, Mafah broke loose, showing uncharacteristic speed to get to the end zone. At just under 7 minutes left in the half, Clemson led 7-3.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Clemson
Phil Mafah scores on a 41-yard run for the Tigers.
Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

The Tiger defense stuffed the Irish on their next drive and got the ball at their 24 after the punt. The Tigers went 3-and-out but the booming Aidan Swanson punt was muffed and the Tigers recovered it at the Irish 22. Mafah went beast mode, after after an errant decision to try a pass that almost ended in an interception, the Tiger offense went back to feeding him and they got to 3rd and goal from the 4. Cade Klubnik almost hit Jake Briningstool for the TD, but couldn’t quite hold onto it. After the Jonathan Weitz FG, Clemson led 10-3 with about 2 minutes left in the quarter.

The Irish responded with a good drive, including a 37-yard run by QB Sam Hartman. They moved into the red zone but on 3rd and 3, Xavier Thomas knocked down a Hartman pass and ND had to settle for another FG. At 13:34 left in the half, Clemson led 10-6. Domonique Thomas came in at RB and showed great running power and good hands as the Tiger offense moved down the field. A Beaux Collins catch over the middle got the Tigers to the Irish 20. On 1st and goal just inside the 10, Tyler Brown caught a Klubnik pass over the middle and scored. With just over 9 minutes in the half, Clemson led 17-6.

The next Irish drive consisted of one good run and a Jeremiah Trotter pick-6. Turnovers were finally going the Tigers’ way and they led 24-6 with 8:33 left in the half. The Irish responded with a good drive that saw them reach 3rd and 5 at the Tiger 25. Hartman found Estime in the flat and he took it down to the 3. The Tiger defense held them after that and ND had to settle for another FG. With 1:32 left in the half, Clemson’s lead was cut to 24-9. Clemson didn’t make much of their last drive of the half and we went to halftime with the Tigers leading 24-9.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Clemson
Phillip Florenzo recovers a muffed punt.
Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

Clemson took the 2nd half opening kickoff out to the 20 but turned it over on an interception returned to the 3. Estimate punched it in on the next play. Suddenly it was 24-16 after barely two minutes.

The Tigers settled down and moved down the field by feeding Mafah the ball. The got to 3rd and 9 at the ND 23 and converted when Collins caught a slant pass at the 6. A pass interference penalty gave them 1st and goal from the 2. Two runs by Mafah couldn’t get it into the end zone but the 3rd time was the charm as he punched it in to give Clemson a 31-16 lead with just over 8 minutes left in the quarter.

The Tiger defense fell apart on the next Irish drive, giving up some big plays including a 26-yard scramble by Hartman for a TD. Clemson led 31-23 with 6 minutes left in the quarter. The Tiger offense moved into ND territory but couldn’t convert a 3rd down. On 4th and 4, Klubnik executed a nice pooch punt that pinned the Irish at their 4.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at Clemson
Clemson got after Irish QB Sam Hartman all day.
Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

The Tiger defense got back to their usual aggressive nature and an offensive pass interference penalty forced an Irish punt. Clemson took over at midfield. OC Garret Riley got pass happy for some reason despite Mafah’s dominance on the ground, and the Tigers went backwards, wasting a good opportunity to get points. Fortunately, a 57-yard punt pinned the Irish at their 7.

The Tiger defense stayed aggressive and the Irish weren’t able to do much, moving out to the 30 before being forced to punt. The Tigers were moving the ball, but a bad snap over Klubnik’s head killed the drive and had to punt. If this team didn’t find every possible way to shoot themselves in the foot, they might very well be undefeated.

The Tiger defense repeated their effort from the previous drive and pushed ND back to the 10, forcing a punt. After the punt, the Tigers got the ball at the Irish 49. A TD drive that took some time off the clock would be quite welcome at this point in the game. A bad pitch put an end to that idea but the Swanson punt down to the 6 at least put the game back in the hands of Clemson’s strength, its defense.

The defense did the job, forcing the Irish to punt from the end zone. Greene returned it to the Tiger 43. The offense couldn’t move the ball and punted, again pinning the Irish deep in their territory.

The defense stepped it up again and nearly sealed the game with an interception by Kylon Griffin. I say nearly because Mafah fumbled the ball and the Irish recovered. But the defense got the job done again when Thomas, who was having a heck of a game, got to Hartman and forced an errant throw on 4th down. The Irish had two timeouts left with about a minute left but the Tigers were able to run the clock out for the 31-23 win.

The Tigers got back on track against a good Noter Dame team despite being down nearly a dozen starters. I saw improvement in offensive line play and Phil Mafah, except for the late fumble, was a beast all day with 36 carries for 186 yards. I hope the coaches keep going to the ground game like this. Cade is still developing as a QB and having a productive running game is the best thing they can do for him. The defense played like one of the best in the country today. What are your thoughts on the Tigers’ success today. Let’s discuss it below. See you next week!