CLEMSON, S.C. — Notre Dame didn’t blame the awful weather that hit the eastern seaboard for its three fumbles and deluge of dropped passes. It didn’t blame the raucous din of Clemson’s Death Valley for its slow start, both offensively and defensively.
Instead, this is a team that left South Carolina’s Piedmont brimming with frustration over how it managed to lose, 24-22, to No. 12 Clemson on Saturday night.
“We’re not here for moral victories,” coach Brian Kelly said. “We’re too far along in our program.”
This is Year 6 of Kelly’s tenure in South Bend. For the first time since the regime change of December 2009, there’s a confidence in the Guglielmino Athletics Complex in Notre Dame’s top-end talent and depth across the board (the 2012 team that made the BCS Championship was thin depth-wise; Kelly admitted earlier this year that squad couldn’t have sustained its success through the kind of injuries the 2015 suffered).
That depth is why Notre Dame remained steadfast in its focus of reaching the College Football Playoff, even after losing defensive tackle Jarron Jones, cornerback Shaun Crawford, running back Tarean Folston, quarterback Malik Zaire, tight end Durham Smythe and safety Drue Tranquill to season-ending injuries. And against Clemson, that confidence was proven to be rooted in reality — it wasn’t a lack of depth that led Notre Dame to fall behind 14-0 in the first quarter and have to make up an 18-point deficit in the final 15 minutes.
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Instead, it was a slow start by the Irish defense that allowed DeShaun Watson & Co. to scythe 64 yards on their opening drive for a touchdown. It was a shanked punt by Tyler Newsome that set up a four-play, 40-yard scoring drive on the Tigers’ next possession. It was an offensive line that looked entirely overmatched on running plays and a wide receiver corps that couldn’t catch the ball in the first half.
“We’re not going to make that excuse about the weather,” wide receiver Will Fuller, who was locked down by Clemson cornerback MacKensie Alexander for only two catches, said. “We knew there were going to be wet conditions. We practiced it all week, so we had to come down with the catches.”
Notre Dame’s defense hit the reset button after those first two drives and limited Clemson’s offense to 3.6 yards per play the rest of the way. Clemson defensive end Shaq Lawson said Notre Dame was tipping its run/pass calls, which could begin to explain how an offensive line that should’ve been the best unit on the field was so thoroughly dominated through the first three quarters (Clemson’s front seven, of course, deserves plenty of credit as well).
But as Notre Dame fixed its pass-catching issues and the offensive line and defense improved, a string of turnovers backed the Irish into an unenviable corner.
“Our program’s past this,” center and team captain Nick Martin said. “We’re too good of a team to come down and lose this game.”
Freshman C.J. Sanders lost a fumble while returning the opening kickoff of the second half, giving Clemson a short field to easily convert into seven points. Running back C.J. Prosise coughed up the ball on the first play of Notre Dame’s ensuing drive, though Clemson was unable to land a haymaker with a touchdown or a field goal off it.
DeShone Kizer forced a pass that was picked off midway through the fourth quarter, which led to a Clemson field goal. And only a few yards from the end zone on what could’ve resulted in a game-tying touchdown, Alexander dislodged the ball from receiver Chris Brown’s hands for Notre Dame’s fourth second-half turnover.
“If you told me four times, I would’ve told you that we’re going to lose,” Kelly said. “You wouldn’t have to be a genius to figure that out. We turned the ball over four times and we lost.”
Except in spite of those turnovers, Notre Dame almost won. Kizer led a manic last-ditch drive, taking the Irish from the Clemson 32 to the doorstep of the end zone in about 60 seconds. With seven seconds remaining, he floated a pass to a wide-open Torii Hunter Jr. for a touchdown, setting up a game-tying two-point conversion attempt.
Kizer was stuffed on a run-pass option, leaving Notre Dame with only a gutting loss after a gutsy comeback.
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“We want to be a championship team,” Kizer said, “and champions don’t lose.”
The last part of Kizer’s quote isn’t exactly true. Three of the last five championship-winning teams (Ohio State in 2014, Alabama in 2012 and Alabama in 2011) have had one loss.
We’re only five weeks into the season and chaos is already a theme; on Saturday alone Ole Miss and Georgia were clobbered by Florida and Alabama, Ohio State and Michigan State were pushed by Indiana’s bottom-feeding Big Ten teams, and UCLA lost by 15 at home to Arizona State.
The point is, Notre Dame is hardly doomed in the race to be one of four teams selected for the 2015 College Football Playoff. Its depth is still there. Its top-end talent is still there. Clean up the fumbles, stop dropping passes (both of which can probably be solved by playing in better weather), avoid slow defensive starts and maybe don’t go for two with 14 minutes left in the fourth quarter, and this is a team that very well could be good enough to be considered by the unpredictable selection committee next month.
There’s no margin for error anymore. That much isn’t lost on this group.
“There’s not going to be anybody that’s working harder than us next week and for the rest of the season,” linebacker and captain Joe Schmidt said. “We gotta get back to work. We have a big challenge ahead of us in Navy. I can guarantee that we’re going to be better.”