The Clemson Tigers improved to 5-4 on the season with a 31-23 victory over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Saturday afternoon in Death Valley. There is no need to rehash the “Tyler From Spartanburg” discourse that sucked up all the oxygen in the build-up to the game but there was some extra attention paid to this game for two reasons: First, Notre Dame was ranked 15th and is a national brand. Second, people were curious to see how Dabo Swinney and the Tigers would respond after a head-scratching 4-4 start and the week of “what’s wrong with Clemson” talk. While the issues are not magically fixed after one performance, Clemson showed they are still very capable of beating good teams and they are not ready to give up on the season. What are the key plays that led to the 31-23 win?
Phil Mafah Puts Clemson On the Board
The Fighting Irish drove 50 yards on seven plays and connected on a 43-yard field goal to open the scoring. Clemson answered with a physical drive and an explosive run from Phil Mafah. The Tigers were without several key pieces, especially on offense. The offensive line was missing three would-be starters along with Antonio Williams and starting running back Will Shipley. A nice punt return by Hamp Greene set Clemson up in plus-field position at the Notre Dame 41-yard line. On the first play of the drive, Klubnik handed it off to Phil Mafah and the junior from Georgia burst through the left side of the line and showed surprising breakaway speed, racing in for a 41-yard touchdown.
Muffed Punt Results in Field Goal
The teams traded punts but Clemson caught a special teams break. Notre Dame’s punt returner appeared to misjudge the kick as it clanged off his facemask. The loose ball was recovered by long-snapper Philip Florenzo at the 45-yard line. Goal-to-go situations continued to vex the Tigers as they were forced to settle for a short field goal from Jonathan Weitz to put Clemson ahead 10-3.
Tyler Brown TD
The Fighting Irish responded with another solid drive but it was again thwarted in scoring territory. They settled for a field goal to cut the margin to 10-6 and kicked back to Clemson. The Tigers produced one the of the best drives of the game, going nine plays for 75 yards and mixing the run and some short passes. It was paid off with a nine-yard slant pass to Tyler Brown. The freshman made his only catch of the day count, breaking a tackle and reaching the end zone to make it 17-6.
Jeremiah Trotter Jr. Puts on His Cape
Jeremiah Trotter Jr. was an absolute monster on Saturday afternoon. He played a terrific game and was a consistent menace for the Notre Dame offense. His best play came on Notre Dame’s next offensive possession as he perfectly read a Notre Dame wide receiver’s route, cut under the route, intercepted Sam Hartman’s pass and took it to the house for a pick-six touchdown. The Tigers were ahead 24-6 and the Death Valley crowd was roaring its approval.
Notre Dame Field Goal To End Half
The Fighting Irish were on the verge of being KO’d in the first half but settled down for a long drive to end the half. The Irish went 12 plays and had a first and goal at the three-yard line but the Clemson defense shut the door. The Tigers stuffed two running plays and a successfully defended a passing play, forcing a third Notre Dame field goal. The game went to half with a score of 24-9.
Xavier Watts Continues All-American Season
Notre Dame defensive back Xavier Watts has been terrific all season and he made another consequential play against Clemson. On Clemson’s first drive of the second half, Klubnik rifled a pass to Beaux Collins. The wide receiver failed to make the catch, popping the ball up and into the waiting hands of Xavier Watts. Watts ran the ball back to the Clemson two-yard line and Audric Estime plunged in for the Irish’s first touchdown of the day. Just like that, it was 24-16.
Clemson fans would be forgiven for grumbling “here we go again” after a Clemson turnover quickly resulted in opponent points. The Tigers did not let things snowball though, responding with a terrific 11-play and 75-yard drive that ended with another Phil Mafah touchdown. Clemson was stopped on first and second down inside the ten-yard line but finally punched it in on third down for the one-yard score to make the lead to 31-16. Mafah finished the day with 36 carries for 186 yards with two touchdowns and showed he is more than capable of being a workhorse back.
Sam Hartman Finds the End Zone
Notre Dame answered with a 35-yard pass followed by a pair of short gains that set up a first down at the Clemson 26-yard line. Sam Hartman scampered around the outside of the line as Clemson’s defense failed to account for his mobility. The senior quarterback tight-roped down the sideline and scored to cut the lead back to eight points as the game headed to the fourth quarter at 31-23.
Kylon Griffin Nearly Seals the Game
The teams traded punts as Clemson’s offense sputtered but Jeremiah Trotter Jr. continued to wreck Notre Dame’s attempts to tie the game. The Fighting Irish had the ball at the six-yard line with just 3:16 remaining. On second down with 2:07 left, Sam Hartman sailed a pass high and true freshman Kylon Griffin made the interception to give Clemson possession with 1:58 left. Clemson fans celebrated, the game should be over as Clemson just needs to run out the clock. Of course, it wouldn’t be that easy!
Mafah Fumbles But Clemson Defense Locks It Up
On second and two, needing only two yards to end the game, Phil Mafah had the ball ripped away from him by a Notre Dame defender. The Fighting Irish took over with 1:47 left but there was no way the Clemson defense was letting them drive the field to send it to overtime. The Tigers continued to pressure Hartman relentlessly and Xavier Thomas forced an incompletion as he wrapped the Notre Dame quarterback up on fourth and ten to end the ballgame.
Clemson gained only 4.1 yards per play but they held Notre Dame to only 13 first downs and just 3-14 on third and fourth downs. The Tigers will try to become bowl eligible with a home game against Georgia Tech this Saturday.