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Things We Learned: Notre Dame dominates Clemson in the way long expected, if also delayed, this season

After Notre Dame defeated Clemson in South Bend, head coach Marcus Freeman discusses how his team found a way to win and unseat the fourth-ranked team in the country.

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — There need be no disclaimer. Notre Dame (6-3) simply beat No. 4 Clemson (8-1) that badly. If the Irish had topped the Tigers 14-0 instead of 35-14, the response would be the same. Notre Dame beat Clemson, a bona fide Playoff contender, that resoundingly.

After the Irish went on the road and beat ACC contenders North Carolina and Syracuse, the victories needed to be couched, emphasizing how bad both defenses are. Once Notre Dame got a lead thanks to those sieves, it could wrangle the life out of the game and minimize the worry of their genuine explosiveness. Against the Tigers, no clarification need lessen Irish joy this week.

Notre Dame walloped a top-five team. Even if wanting to disparage Clemson, the harshest thing one could say is, the Irish dominated a top-10 team.

“Not every day do you get the opportunity to play in this place, jam-packed, with those fans and have an opportunity to beat a top-five team in the country,” Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman said Saturday night after navigating his way through those fans, filing slowly out of the Stadium tunnel, to get to the postgame media room. “It’s really special. I’m so proud of our guys.”

Those opportunities are rare, obviously, given facing top-five teams is a matter of timing more than it is scheduling. Yet, this was the seventh time the Irish have faced a top-five team since 2017, the 11th time they’ve played a top-10 team. Notre Dame was 1-5 and 2-8 entering Saturday.

Some commenters will read that and jump into Brian Kelly criticisms, but their point has always been misguided. Beating top-five teams is supposed to be hard, it is uncommon by nature. Kelly beat No. 1 Clemson near the peak of its powers in 2020, and the Irish out-physicaled No. 7 Stanford in 2018. There were highs.

That 2018 demolition of the Cardinal may be the closest comparison to Saturday’s win. Notre Dame ran for 281 yards (sack adjusted) to win 38-17 and stake its claim as a Playoff contender, but Stanford remained competitive into the fourth quarter, when the Irish outscored them 14-0.

Of course, mentioning Stanford in 2022 elicits bad memories from just weeks ago, but the upset of the Tigers should overshadow that misstep.

“This is still part of a new foundation,” Freeman said. “You can’t just change leaders and think it’s going to be like this. We have to build this foundation the right way.

“We believe that becomes infallible, it becomes infallible, you have such a strong foundation that no matter what happens, you’re going to be solid.”

Clemson did not have that foundation Saturday. It was never as competitive as that 2018 top-10 matchup against the Cardinal was. Not even former Notre Dame recruiting target Will Shipley could carry the Tigers, gaining 63 yards on 12 carries but increasingly left out of the offense as Clemson fell further and further behind the Irish.

One could remove Notre Dame’s special teams and defensive touchdowns, ignore the short field (via freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison’s first interception) that led to Audric Estimé’s touchdown run and dismiss Michael Mayer’s record-setting score as a garbage-time perk, and the Irish still beat the Tigers decisively. If looking at the game through that lens, then it is only fair to point out the Notre Dame possession ending in a Blake Grupe missed field goal was a quality drive, its first of two in a row before halftime.

The Irish controlled 68.75 percent of the game before Morrison ran his second pick back 96 yards for a touchdown, when focusing on drive-by-drive results.

That was where Notre Dame differed from its season-opening loss at No. 2 Ohio State. The Buckeyes outplayed the Irish most of the game, even if they firmly took the lead only in the third quarter’s final minute. Ohio State controlled 53.3 percent of the game before its drive to secure a 14-10 advantage, and it controlled 63.2 percent of the game in total.

“We wanted to run the ball — Ohio State seems so long ago,” Freeman said. “But there were points in [that] game where we weren’t able to do it.”

Considering Notre Dame took 27 carries for 95 yards in Columbus (sacks adjusted), that was certainly the case. It was not against Clemson, a defensive front nearly, if not equally, as vaunted as Ohio State’s.

“At some point tonight, if we weren’t able to run the ball with efficiency, we were going to have to throw it a little bit more,” Freeman said. “We threw it when we needed to, but we were running the ball with the efficiency we needed to continue to extend the drives.”

Junior quarterback Drew Pyne threw 17 passes, the fewest in an Irish win in a full decade, the last such instance being a Tommy Rees and Andrew Hendrix combination to go 8-of-17 for 119 yards in a 2012 victory against BYU. No disrespect to Notre Dame’s current offensive coordinator or one of his, to this day, best friends, but anytime a stat is comparable to a Rees and Hendrix partnership, it is not a sign of effectiveness.

“You have to play to your strengths,” Freeman said. “That can be within the game. Today, those strengths were playing really good defense and running the ball on offense.”

In those respects, Notre Dame is who we thought it would be. It just arrived a bit late.

Early in preseason practices, Freeman began describing his team as an “O-line- and D-line-driven program.” It made sense, an offensive line returning five starters and an offensive line coach long missed along with a defensive line featuring two likely second- or third-round draft picks and enough depth to make that offensive line look shallow.

But then Marshall pushed the Irish around. And Stanford somehow escaped South Bend with a win.

It took some time for Freeman’s foundation to settle.

“Winning does two things in my mind,” he said. “It gives you that feeling, that it’s hard to [replicate], the feeling of being a winner. But it’s short-lived, especially here, because next week we have to get ready to go. …

“Two, it’s a confidence and belief in what you’re doing. It reaffirms the process, it reaffirms the things you’re doing.”

Notre Dame has now won three in a row and six out of seven. That confidence and belief has arrived, and it has done so because the Irish are who we thought they were.

They shut down Syracuse’s running game and then squeezed the Orange into pulp. (Editor’s Note: Shame on you, Douglas.) They stopped Clemson in its tracks.

Notre Dame so soundly defeated the Tigers that removing the two biggest plays from the game would not change the fact that the Irish outplayed Clemson in every regard conceivable, most notably along the offensive and defensive lines.

The only person who may not be aware of who Notre Dame is at this point is one of the offensive line’s greatest beneficiaries. Sophomore running back Logan Diggs finished with 17 carries for 114 yards on Saturday, part of the Irish totals of 45 carries for 266 yards, yet he still does not realize who Rees is at his core.

“Thank you for continuing to trust me, trust the whole running back room, trust the O-line,” Diggs said he told Rees as the game clock dwindled Saturday. “Putting the game in our hands means a lot, coming from him especially. He likes to throw the ball.”

If Rees could revive his football career as any type of player, it would almost certainly be as an interior offensive lineman. In the aftermath of this upset, he tweeted out a photo prominently featuring a ballcap insisting, “Run the damn ball.” It seems safe to assume Rees already owned the hat, not finding it at a gas station after midnight Sunday morning.

Rees is not someone who likes to throw the ball. He barely instructed Pyne to on Saturday, which led to such dominance — the genre of dominance expected all season, if not to this extreme — that Diggs could make that mistake before the game ended.

Rees had left the coaches’ booth to watch the final few minutes of a blowout of a top-five team from the sideline. The Irish may be who we thought they were, but that was a moment of bravado never anticipated in one of this season’s two (and maybe yet three) games against top-five opponents.

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