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Things We Learned: Playoff bid confirms Notre Dame among the near-elite, even if scoreboard remains lopsided

ACC Championship - Clemson v Notre Dame

CHARLOTTE, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 19: Quarterback Trevor Lawrence #16 of the Clemson Tigers runs with the ball in the first half against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the ACC Championship game at Bank of America Stadium on December 19, 2020 in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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Brian Kelly may as well have been talking about two years ago, nearly to the week.

“You get a little thin back there (in the secondary), but the second quarter was the key and not fitting a couple of the cue runs was certainly key as well,” the Notre Dame head coach said. “By and large, within the passing game, the second half we settled into a better routine.

“It was really the second quarter where [Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence] was able to get some one-on-one matchups.”

Kelly was discussing Saturday’s 34-10 loss in the ACC championship game, but every word there would also have applied to the 30-3 Irish struggle in the 2018 Playoff semifinal. Every word of it, from the injury issue to the second quarter specificity to the second-half stability.

Calling it déjà vu would be too trite. A more descriptive summary of these parallels would be, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Notre Dame never threatened the Tigers in the Cotton Bowl. Perhaps a recovered punt fumble would have given the Irish momentary life back then in Dallas, but it would have been nothing but for a moment. Whereas in Charlotte, Notre Dame had a genuine chance at a second-quarter lead. That may be a low hook to hang a hat on, but it is evidence the Irish were not overwhelmed from the jump.

Only in time.

That was the inevitability of facing Lawrence at his peak. The best quarterback prospect since at least Andrew Luck with far more tools at his disposal than Luck ever did at Stanford, Lawrence erases any margin of error for Clemson’s opponents. And Notre Dame erred in not capitalizing on scoring opportunities on its first three possessions, instead managing all of three points. If Lawrence needed some time to find a rhythm, that was all he needed, finishing with 322 passing yards, 90 rushing yards and three total touchdowns.

“It’s the difference-maker,” Kelly said. “His ability to run really stresses your coverage calls. It stresses a lot of things that you do in terms of your fits and where essentially you’re trying to get him to certainly not be that kind of player. What you’re trying to do is bring some pressures that eliminate those runs, but it just opens up some one-on-one matchups that are not that favorable, and so it’s a dilemma. It’s something that we struggled with a little bit tonight.”

The Tigers’ defense presented just as difficult a dilemma, focusing its efforts on removing Irish fifth-year quarterback Ian Book’s freelance work, hemming him into the pocket rather than prioritizing sacks, though Clemson still managed six of those. Without Notre Dame’s trademarked scramble drills breaking coverage designs, its receivers struggled to get open as they have all season.

“When you drop more into coverage than you have out there, you can have five Jerry Rices out there, they’re not getting open as readily,” Kelly said.

At that point, the Tigers could somewhat stack the box and render the Irish ground game utterly ineffectual, thus compounding the passing game’s struggles as down-and-distance situations became less and less manageable.

These challenges will face Notre Dame again.

“Look at where we erred, fix those mistakes because whatever team we play next will be looking at those plays we didn’t execute on,” Irish senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said. “We’re looking forward to seeing those exact plays again.”

No. 1 Alabama will stress the Irish defense just as Clemson’s did, if not more so. That would have been the case even without the weekend’s exposé on utilizing big plays to break Clark Lea’s defense. What Tide quarterback Mac Jones does not do with his legs, running back Najee Harris makes up for.

Not that Notre Dame will be alone in being challenged by Alabama. It scored 49.7 points per game against a schedule of 11 SEC teams, including three in the top 9. Against Texas A&M, Georgia and Florida, the Tide managed a measly 48.3 points per game. Even without looking at any Alabama film, Kelly knows what awaits the Irish is daunting once again.

“I followed all of their scores, they have been a buzzsaw against everybody,” he said Sunday.

Again, Notre Dame’s margin of error will be slim, if existing at all.

“We didn’t play up to our capabilities [Saturday], and Clemson played very, very well,” Kelly said. “We didn’t play with the same edge, we didn’t play with the same kind of tenacity necessary in a championship game. That’s on me. I’ve got to get our team to play better in that moment.

“But there wasn’t this gap of physicality that had been there in the past. … Certainly capable as a football team to go in and beat anybody on any given day. That probably wasn’t the case a few years back, but we’ve got to play up to our level.”

When Kelly refers to the physical deficiencies of years ago, he is specifically referencing facing the Tide in the 2012 national title game. That 42-14 loss was not as close as the score indicated, a decimation on both sides of the line of scrimmage needing to be seen to be understood.

Even against Clemson in Charlotte, that was not the case, nor was it two years ago in the Playoff. In both instances, speed did in the Irish. Whether or not they can adjust to that reality in short order will determine 2020’s final Notre Dame narrative, but narratives are properly viewed on an evolving basis.

Saturday’s embarrassment came at the hands of a familiar perpetrator; the possibility of another on New Year’s Day will come in the location of the other most-recent explicable beatdown, though at the hands of the classic steamroller that brutalized Kelly’s early years at Notre Dame.

The repetitive nature of these calamities is a good problem for the Irish to have. Few other teams have enjoyed facing Clemson and Alabama four times in three years, and aside from historical anomalies a la 2019’s LSU offensive showcase, only Clemson and Alabama seem equipped to slow each other.

This Notre Dame misery is a result of its success. Saturday’s failure did not change that, as evidenced by the Irish still reaching what this space will be calling the Thorn Bowl, née the Rose Bowl.

A 34-10 loss is an improvement on a 30-3 drubbing, which was itself a step forward from a 42-14 failure, though all only nominally. Being in position to continue suffering such blowouts, however, is the better sign of progress.

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