It had the makings of a competitive game early. Notre Dame converted two third-down plays on their opening drive, leading to Jonathan Doerer’s 51-yard field goal. Safety Kyle Hamilton, an Atlanta native, intercepted Lawrence off a deflection on the ensuing drive.
Clemson’s defense held on third-and-goal, setting up Doerer to miss a 24-yarder. The Tigers quickly woke up: Lawrence hit Amari Rodgers for a 67-yard touchdown that put Clemson ahead 7-3. The Tigers scored 17 points on their next three drives before halftime. The Irish’s final four first-half possessions ended with a turnover on downs, two punts and the half’s conclusion.
The dagger came just before intermission, when Clemson, leading 17-3, was running the two-minute drill. Lawrence made a mental miscue, hurrying to spike the ball on a third-and-1 with 29 seconds and a timeout remaining. Lawrence appeared to think running back Travis Etienne got the first down on the previous play.
One of Clemson’s few frustrating moments was swiftly forgotten. Etienne’s 44-yard touchdown run on the next play broke it open and put Notre Dame on the brink of getting blown out. Clemson won the second quarter, 17-0, while outgaining Notre Dame 228-49.
“We let the second quarter get away from us,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “That was the difference in the game.”
Lawrence, who’s a slam dunk to go No. 1 in the 2021 NFL draft, if he leaves school early, again showed why he’s possibly the biggest difference-maker in the nation. Entering the day, Lawrence had thrown for 2,431 yards with a 20:3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in eight games. The two contests he missed – Boston College and Notre Dame – were the only one-possession games Clemson played in the regular season.
The Cartersville High product was masterful in what likely was his final conference contest. He completed 25 of 36 passes for 322 yards and two passing touchdowns. His 34-yard rushing touchdown was the only score in the third quarter and put the game away at 31-3. Lawrence exited with roughly five minutes remaining.
“It was awesome,” Lawrence said. “I didn’t get to play in the first round with these guys, so just preparing these past two weeks, getting ready was a lot of fun. I felt like we just ran the game plan and came together as a team. We knew we were prepared to come out here and do it, which was awesome.”
Lawrence will turn his attention to the national semifinals, and should his team advance, he’d become the first quarterback to start three national championship games. Lawrence’s only loss as a starter came in January, when LSU defeated Clemson in the title game.
“It would be a crying shame if the Heisman (Trophy) didn’t attach their name to Trevor Lawrence,” Swinney said during the postgame celebration. “That would be a shame. I know that’s become a stat award, but if you watch college football and you don’t know this is the best player in the country, I don’t know what you’re looking at. To me, the Heisman should want their name attached to Trevor Lawrence.”
When Clemson’s latest playoff qualification becomes official, the Tigers will have participated in six of the seven College Football Playoffs since the format was established before the 2014-15 season. This was the 10th consecutive season they’ve won 10 or more games. Swinney is vying for his third national championship.
On the other side, Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book dropped to 30-4 as a starter. He was limited to 219 passing yards while completing 20 of 28 attempts. The Tigers’ defense that was lit up for 518 yards against the Irish last month held Notre Dame to 263 total yards, including only 44 yards rushing. The Irish couldn’t muster much offense after their early missed opportunities. Notre Dame scored once in its final 10 drives. Four of its five second-half possessions ended in a punt.
“Obviously tonight was rough and it leaves a bad taste in our mouth,” Book said. “We just want to play again. And when you have a game like this all you want to do is get back out there so you can get another good feeling. I think we belong in it. It’s our first loss. We played 11 football games, that’s a lot of football games. We beat the No. 1 team, beat the No. 15 team on the road, so I think we deserve it. I think tonight wasn’t our night. Everybody who’s played football before understands there’s bad nights and that was tonight.”
Notre Dame has presented its case to the committee, but the final impression won’t help matters. Their struggles Saturday opened the door for Texas A&M, which finished 8-1 in the SEC, to potentially sneak into the field.
If the Irish qualify, this would be their second College Football Playoff berth. They made it as a 12-0 independent in the 2018 season, losing to Clemson in the semifinals. This was their first season competing as a member of the ACC, a decision made because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“There’s no doubt this is one of the four best teams in the country,” Kelly said. “We’ll leave the rest up to the committee.” Swinney concurred, saying Notre Dame “absolutely, ain’t no doubt about it” should make the playoff.
Clemson and Alabama - even if it’s upset against Florida in Saturday evening’s SEC Championship game - should make the playoff. Despite playing only six games, Ohio State positioned itself well after winning the Big Ten title game Saturday. Notre Dame and Texas A&M have one-loss cases. Madness could ensue if two-loss Florida stunned Alabama. It’s a messy field further complicated by the Irish’s considerable defeat.
The College Football Playoff bracket will be announced Sunday. The semifinal games are scheduled for Jan. 1 at AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas) and Sugar Bowl (New Orleans). The national championship is scheduled for Jan. 11 in Miami.
“We’re going to have a pizza party (Sunday) and see what’s next for the Tigers,” Swinney said. “But this was special. Everything for us goes through the ACC championship. You win this league, good things have a chance to happen for you. ... It was good to see us play our best game on the biggest stage tonight.”