ARLINGTON, Texas – In the lead up to the Cotton Bowl, there was a lot of talk from Notre Dame about how different this team was from the 2012 team that won 12 straight games before falling to Alabama in the BCS Championship Game.
This team might be different, better, faster, bigger, more talented, whatever. The result was the same today as it was then: a game that was over by halftime and a disappointed fanbase wondering when the program will finally be able to compete with the best teams in the country.
This game will probably lead to many critics around the country shouting that it proves the Irish shouldn't have been in the CFP at all. Let's get this out of the way: Notre Dame absolutely deserved to be here. The Irish were one of the best teams in the country all season, won all of their games against a perfectly acceptable schedule and didn't require any flukes to do it. They lost badly today, but there is no rational way they should have been kept out. Georgia fans: you had your shot and you choked it away. Ohio State fans: you lost by 29 to Purdue. Sorry, you don't get to complain now.
That said, it's clear the Irish still have work to do to get to the level of Clemson and Alabama. It'll be cold comfort for fans to hear now, but in my eyes they're a lot closer than they were in 2012. For the most part, the Irish were able to match Clemson athletically and they held their own from sideline to sideline. They didn't get completely out-classed like they did against the Crimson Tide.
This game came down to execution and the loss of Julian Love more than anything else. On offense, the Irish had the right game plan: beat Clemson's rush with quick passes and runs to the outside. Early on, Ian Book did a good job of getting the ball out quickly, but after the first quarter he began to feel the pressure and struggled to get through his progression. By the end of the game, he was dancing around the pocket before the pressure even got there and missing open receivers that he's hit all season. Book was sacked six times and several of them came from holding on to the ball too long. Clemson's somewhat maligned secondary had a hand in that, as well. Outside of a few nice catches for Miles Boykin, there often weren't many places for Book to go. When Notre Dame had to throw the ball down the field more often to try to get back in the game, it was all over.
On defense, the Irish mostly bottled up Travis Etienne. Outside of his 62-yard touchdown run when the game was already almost decided, the ACC Player of the Year wasn't much of a factor. Instead, Trevor Lawrence picked the Irish apart. Again, it was a different story early. Notre Dame brought pressure in the first quarter and clearly rattled Lawrence a bit, forcing him into some bad throws. When Julian Love left the game with a head injury, however, Lawrence and the Tigers began picking on replacement Donte Vaughn. Wide receiver Justyn Ross was fantastic and could very well win the Biletnikoff Award if he sticks around Clemson long enough. His combination of speed and strength is rare and for a true freshman it's almost unheard of. The Tigers continue to churn out wildly talented recivers and Ross seems to be the next in line. His two touchdown catches, from 52 and 42 yards out, were the difference.
Of course some fans will want to pin this game on the coaches, but it's difficult to find a rationale for doing that. The Irish had a solid game plan and they made some adjustments at halftime that helped stabilize the game (getting Love back helped too). On the first four drives of the second half, Notre Dame forced two punts and drove deep into Clemson territory twice. If the Irish had been able to punch the ball in either time, the rest of the game might have gone very differently.
This came down to execution. Clemson won the turnover battle and it made the big plays. It will probably go on and play a wildly entertaining game against Alabama next week; it's clearly the class of college football.
It's a bitter pill for the Irish that all of this buildup led to a second disappointment in six years. Notre Dame insists it's close and it might well be, but it will be a lot tougher to convince fans to take those pronouncements seriously after tonight.