I must confess that I find writing about Clemson’s victory over Notre Dame on Saturday difficult, chiefly because my fingernails are bitten down to nubs, but also because it’s so difficult to know what to think. What the hell, exactly, just happened on that miserable, rainy night at Death Valley? Yes, Clemson won, and yes, it was a glorious extended middle-finger to those in the media who thought that this team could not get it done against a sixth-ranked team with one of the more productive offenses in the country.
That being said, this was really a Tale of Three Games. There was the first quarter, in which a hot-starting Clemson offense rang up two quick touchdowns and the more-impressive-every week defense held the Fighting Irish to a goose-egg on the scoreboard. During this time Clemson QB DeShaun Watson’s legs, arm, and brain were fully in-sync, and the question of “Has he fully recovered from his knee injury?” was answered with a resounding, “What knee injury?” And then there was the much-vaunted Notre Dame receiver Will Fuller, who was transformed into an afterthought as Clemson’s beastly defense kept the Irish out of the Red Zone, harassed quarterback DeShone Kizer, and pummeled rushing phenom C.J. Prosise every time he was unfortunate enough to put his hands on the ball
Then there were the second and third quarters in which, other than Watson’s beautifully orchestrated touchdown run, both teams’ offenses essentially broke down entirely. But even then, as the third quarter ended, Clemson was up 21-3 and it seemed like it was a certainty the headlines “Clemson Routs Irish” would appear in newspapers across the land.
And then there was the fourth quarter — good God almighty, that fourth quarter. I’m talking 15 minutes of sloppy, chaotic, ridiculous, impossible, mud-caked, incredible, heart-stopping football that should’ve come with a list of possible side effects. I suppose the sheets of rain could serve as an excuse, but how did the wheels come off Clemson’s offense that badly at the exact moment that Kizer came alive with a 56-yard pass to a previously ineffective Prosise? How could the impenetrable Tiger defense allow 19 points in one quarter? And how did I manage to not have a coronary during that last-ditch, all-or-nothing stand at the goal line that kept Kizer and the game-tying run out of the end zone?
The fact of the matter is that Notre Dame is a good team, and they adjusted to Clemson’s stack-the-line-of-scrimmage defensive scheme. Why it took them three quarters is a bit of a mystery, but miserable conditions tend to make football coaches conservative. Witness Dabo’s play-it-safe mentality throughout the fourth quarter, an abnormally reserved strategy that almost lost Clemson the game.
After that hard-bitten victory in which the stats for the losing team look like winning team stats and vice-versa (Watson was 11/22 with 97 yards, while Kizer was 19/34 with 321), it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Florida State giving the Tigers much trouble for the rest of the season. Georgia Tech is not what they were last year, and I can’t imagine that a little revenge for last year’s beatdown isn’t in order this Saturday at Death Valley.
One last thing: How badass was kicker Ammon Lakip’s fumble-causing hit on Notre Dame’s C.J. Sanders? Dude went head-first into Sanders’ breadbasket like Lawrence Taylor, knocking the ball loose and earning him some serious sideline love afterwards. If there’s a right way to come back from an embarrassing suspension, that’s gotta be it.