Just when you thought this season was not going to take another unexpected turn, the Tigers decided to put their failures this season behind them and shocked the 15th-ranked Fighting Irish in Death Valley on Saturday. An inspired performance from Phil Mafah, the offensive line, and a defense led by Jeremiah Trotter propelled the Tigers to victory. Let’s dive into the game and take a look at how each position group performed on the day. These ratings are my own and are subjective, so don’t take them to be an exact science. Let’s get into it, and leave your thoughts in the comment section!
Quarterback - 7
Cade Klubnik’s performance will likely not be on any highlight reels at the end of the year, but he showed some maturity and poise that we have not seen much of this season. The sophomore QB finished 13–26 for 109 yards with a touchdown and an interception. I thought Klubnik made some confident throws on all of Clemson’s scoring drives and delivered some strikes that were unlucky not to be caught on occasion. He was not at fault for the lone interception, as it bounced off the chest and hands of a receiver. Klubnik did exactly what was asked of him on Saturday, and it was precisely what was needed to command an offense that had been struggling. He also had a fantastic punt on a punt-pass-option to pin Notre Dame deep.
Running Backs - 9
Phil Mafah turned into an unstoppable force and bulldozed the Notre Dame defense on Saturday. Fellow running back Will Shipley missed the game while recovering from concussion symptoms sustained last week, so much of the responsibility of the game plan fell on the shoulders of junior tailback Mafah. He finished the game with 36 carries for 186 yards (5.2 yds/carry) and two touchdowns. Mafah’s 36 carries were the most by a Clemson back since 2016. He showed tremendous patience by letting plays develop and displayed toughness with some physical runs. The burst of speed he showed on his 41-yard touchdown run sent Death Valley into a frenzy. This performance by Mafah was one of the best individual performances for a Tiger this season.
Wide Receivers - 6
The wide receiving corps had limited numbers on Saturday as the game plan was to mainly attack Notre Dame on the ground. Junior Beaux Collins led the way with 3 receptions for 37 yards, followed by Troy Stellato with 3 catches for 27 yards. Tyler from Greenville caught the sole touchdown pass on a 9-yard slant over the middle, where he showed strength and toughness to make a difficult catch, throw off the Notre Dame defender, and scamper into the endzone. Stellato also displayed some toughness while making a tough catch and using strong hands to keep the ball away from a Notre Dame player. Collins had the lone miscue when dropping a pass that hit him in the chest and deflected for an interception.
Tight Ends - 7
The tight ends had a busy day in mainly run support. The offense lined up in 12 personnel on occasion on Saturday, with Jake Brininstool and Sage Ennis aiding the offensive line in opening up space for the running backs. Both tight ends set the edge well against the Notre Dame defensive front. It is obvious the coaches rely on Sage Ennis’ physicality in the run game. Ennis also caught the longest completion of the day on an 18-yard play. This position group did not flash like they had the last two games, but they provided plenty of substance on a day when they were needed in the trenches.
Offensive Line - 9
The most surprising performance of the day goes to the offensive line. I had little faith in this group going into the game on Saturday. This unit has looked confused and shambolic at times this season, and now they were lining up, without two starters, against the physical Notre Dame front. Insert true freshmen Harris Sewell and Trent Howard—who have both been featured this year at different points this season but have not shined. On Saturday afternoon, the big uglies played with an urgency that we have not seen, firing off the line and pushing the Notre Dame defensive front backwards. The blocking scheme looked a little simpler on Saturday. Just line up and beat the man in front of you. It worked to perfection as the once-benign unit was able to play aggressive and pave the way for 176 yards on the ground. The Tiger offense will come to life if the O-line can sustain this level of play.
Offense - 7.6
The offense on Saturday was shouldered by the offensive line. If you looked at various forums in the buildup to the game on Saturday, the consensus was that if we were to win, the offensive line had to perform. Well, they must have heard the noise because their efforts combined with the patient and powerful running of Phil Mafah is just what the doctor ordered for an offense that needed some help.
The Tigers ran the ball on 62% of plays against Notre Dame—their highest percentage of run plays in a game this season. With the running game proving fertile, this took the pressure off the shoulders of quarterback Cade Klubnik and allowed him to trust his teammates and the system. I believe a lot of the issues in this offense prior to Saturday have been players not trusting each other to make plays. This lack of trust has forced some players to overcompensate, resulting in catastrophically negative plays. Saturday will go a long way for this offense to rebuild trust in each other. We can only hope this newfound trust will yield better performances in the remaining three games.
Defensive Line - 9
The defensive line was dominant for large portions against an always impressive Notre Dame offensive line. One of the most impressive plays of the day was DeMonte Capehart manhandling the Irish center by throwing him to the ground, and then tackling Audric Estime for a loss. To me, that play set the tone for the rest of the game for the defensive front. Xavier Thomas had one of his best games in a Tiger uniform on Saturday. He batted a ball down on a crucial 3rd down in the first half that likely kept Notre Dame from scoring a touchdown instead of a field goal. He also helped keep the pressure on Hartman all game, along with Ruke, Tyler Davis, and Peter Woods. It was an outstanding effort by this group that helped neutralize the Notre Dame offense.
Linebackers - 10
Jeremiah Trotter solidified himself with one of the all-time great Clemson linebacking performances Saturday. Trotter totaled 11 tackles with 2 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. He was lethal on blitzes all afternoon. I am sure Hartman had nightmares of Trotter once he laid his head on a South Bend pillow Saturday night. The biggest play Trotter made was the pick-six where he read Hartman’s eyes, perfectly timed an interception in the flat, and took it to the house. Cue the proverbial roof being blown off Death Valley. The leader of this Tiger defense played like an All-American on Saturday. If there was any question about the commitment of this team after four losses, look at Trotter’s effort on Saturday and tell me this group did not have anything left to play for.
Cornerbacks - 8
Sam Hartman had little to do in the passing game on Saturday and much of that can be contributed to the play of the secondary. The Tigers had to start some inexperience at corner, with true freshmen Aveon Terrell starting alongside sophomore Jeadyn Lukas. (Sheridan Jones was injured and Nate Wiggins did not start due to a negative accountability score for missing class/tutoring.) Both played excellent coverage and never allowed too much separation. Although not starting, Nate Wiggins continued his elite level of play. What a difference a year makes for Wiggins, who had a very difficult game against Hartman last season in Winston-Salem.
Safeties - 9
The safeties were excellent against Notre Dame and kept Hartman from dissecting the Tiger defense through the air. Andrew Mukuba started alongside two true freshmen, Khalil Barnes and Kylon Griffin. Griffin had not even played in the last couple of games, but he came up with one of the biggest plays of the day: intercepting Sam Hartman late in the 4th quarter that all but iced the game. Barnes could have had an interception as well when he had a ball go through his fingers in the second half. Mukuba had a huge PBU in the 4th quarter when Notre Dame was driving to attempt to tie the game.
Defense - 9.0
Last season, Notre Dame was able to rush for over 250 yards against this unit in a demoralizing defeat in South Bend. This season, the Tiger defense held strong. Notre Dame was held to 329 total yards on Saturday—their third lowest offensive output of the season. One of the keys to the game was holding Notre Dame to field goals instead of touchdowns, none bigger than the possession after Clemson had scored on the pick-six to go up 18 points. The defense held Notre Dame from the 3-yard line, inducing a field goal. Notre Dame ended up with only 4.3 pts/red zone attempt, which was below their season average of 5.6 points/attempt.
The Tiger defense was also able to come up with some big takeaways against Notre Dame that turned the momentum in the game. The Tigers forced 3 turnovers on Saturday, and it was only the third time all season that Clemson won the turnover margin. The Tigers played complimentary football instead of capitulation football, which I coined in last week’s article. Sam Hartman is officially 0-5 against the Tigers after the loss on Saturday.
Special Teams - 9
The special teams played outstanding on Saturday. Punter Aiden Swanson pinned Notre Dame inside their own 20-yard line on five occasions. After Klubnik punted late in the 3rd quarter, Swanson was able to pin Notre Dame inside of their own 15-yard line on four consecutive punts. The Tigers won the field position game thanks to this unit repeatedly flipping the field, something Coach Swinney referred to in his postgame presser saying this was a point of pride for the punt team. The Tigers recovered a muffed punt on special teams, and Hamp Greene provided some valuable yards in the return game on multiple occasions. This was the performance by far for the specialists this season.
Coaching - 8
The Tiger coaching staff must have been inspired by Danny Ford when coming up with the game plan on Saturday. I thought the offensive game plan to pound the rock gave Clemson the best chance of winning because it was going to give the O-line confidence and take the pressure off the young quarterback to win the game. Phil Mafah is arguably one of the most experienced players on the offensive side of the ball, and to put the game on his shoulders was a smart decision by the coaching staff—and Mafah delivered.
It was apparent that after the interception that was thrown early in the second half, the coaching staff did not want to risk too many throws over the middle with Notre Dame playing tight coverage all game. The Tigers started around the 50-yard line on multiple occasions in the 4th quarter and were not able to get any points from those opportunities. It would have been nice to see Clemson not get so conservative, however the special teams unit capitalized on the opportunity and turned the failures into a positive in the field position game.
Overall Team Performance - 8.3
As Cade Klubnik and his offensive teammates took the field for their first drive on Saturday, “My Own Worst Enemy” by the 90s rock band Lit was played over the Death Valley loudspeakers. I am not sure if this was intentional by the powers that be, but it is fitting for a team that has had trouble getting out of its own way so far this season. For the Tigers to beat Notre Dame, they were always going to have to put together a performance that we had not really seen from this group yet. They were going to have to not turn the ball over, win the battle in the trenches, and win special teams. I would say most Clemson fans could envision this type of performance was possible with the 2023 team, but it took until Saturday for it to happen. The Tigers played inspired on Saturday in a way that made every Clemson fan proud to wear the Paw. There were no championships on the line on Saturday, but one thing remained to play for—pride.
Bonus Rating: Dabo Swinney - 10
I would be remiss if I did not mention that Coach Dabo Swinney won his 166th game as the Clemson Tigers head coach on Saturday, passing the legend Frank Howard as the all-time winningest coach in Clemson Football history. I am not old enough to remember Coach Howard. What I know of him is what I’ve heard through stories or from videos online. One thing that stands out to me about him is that no one cared for Clemson Football more than Coach Howard. As he looks down on the program today, he surely feels no one is better fit to lead the program he built more than Coach Swinney. I am honored to be a fan of Clemson during the Swinney era, and I hope the best is truly yet to come with Dabo at the helm.