Vengeance was supposed to be the story for the ACC Championship game. Notre Dame beat Clemson in South Bend, when the Tigers didn’t have star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. He was healthy for the rematch, and now Clemson could get back at the Fighting Irish on Saturday in Charlotte.
I saw that storyline as being too small for the Tigers. Beating Notre Dame was about a grand plan, not a grudge. Clemson is trying to win its second national championship in three years and third in five. The Irish were just in the way, so Clemson brushed them aside for a 34-10 victory.
The Irish competed as an official ACC football member for the first time this year. They quickly learned that, while a conference foe might trip Clemson up every now and then, the Tigers own the league. Third-ranked Clemson won its sixth consecutive ACC championship and will be in the College Football Playoff for the sixth consecutive year.
“We’re back,” Lawrence said on the field afterward. “We’re back again. We’re ready.”
Clemson gets its chance to return to the top of college football. The Tigers were there after blowing out Alabama for the 2018 national championship. That made Clemson’s Dabo Swinney the only active coach other than Nick Saban with more than one ring, and the Tigers beat Alabama for both.
LSU took its turn at the summit by beating Clemson in last year’s title game. Those Tigers fell back this season while Clemson surged back to the playoff. Alabama is in the way, as usual. Or given the way it went last time the Crimson Tide seemed destined for a title, maybe we should say Bama is in Clemson’s way.
It’s likely Clemson (10-1) will be No. 2 in the final CFP rankings. Alabama will be No. 1 unless it stumbles against No. 7 Florida in the SEC Championship game late Saturday night. No. 4 Ohio State (6-0) likely will get a playoff bid after beating Northwestern for the Big Ten title earlier Saturday.
Clemson has been in every CFP except the first one. The Tigers beat Alabama for the 2016 title behind quarterback Deshaun Watson. Lawrence became a superstar with his performance as a freshman against Bama in the 2018 title game. The Tigers made it back to the CFP this season despite Lawrence missing games against Boston College and Notre Dame because of a COVID-19 infection.
“We’ve had a lot of great teams but I told these guys, of all the teams I’ve had, these guys deserved it the most,” Swinney said. “Uncharted waters that we’ve navigated this year.”
The day before the ACC title game, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly suggested his players might decide to sit out the playoff if their family members can’t attend the games. There’s a chance the Irish won’t even be invited after Clemson smashed them. Jimbo Fisher, coach of No. 5 Texas A&M (8-1), was making a case for the Aggies after they won at Tennessee.
Clemson doesn’t need to lobby after proving its 47-40 double-overtime loss in South Bend was a one-off. In that game Notre Dame hemmed in Travis Etienne, Clemson’s sensational running back. The Tigers still nearly won with freshman QB D.J. Uiagalelei passing for more than 400 yards.
In the rematch, Lawrence passed for 322 yards and ran for 84 (not counting sacks) before taking it easy on the sideline in the fourth quarter. He had touchdown passes of 67 and 33 yards as Clemson ran out to a 24-3 halftime lead. Lawrence ran for a 34-yard TD to push Clemson’s lead to 31-3 late the third quarter.
In November, Notre Dame held Etienne to a season-low 28 yards rushing on 18 carries. This time he ran for 124 yards on just 10 carries, including a 44-yard score in the final minute of the first half.
Clemson’s first drive ended with Lawrence’s interception. Then the Tigers tallied 24 straight points from 41 seconds before the end of the first quarter to 21 seconds before halftime. The Irish kicked a field goal on the opening possession and then didn’t score the next seven times they had the ball (excluding a kneel down).
Turnovers and third-down troubles cost Clemson during the game in South Bend . That pattern repeated early in the rematch. Book converted two third downs with passes on the way to Notre Dame’s opening field goal. Clemson’s first drive made it to Notre Dame’s 34-yard line before linebacker Drew White tipped Lawrence’s pass and safety Kyle Hamilton caught it.
On the next play Book passed for 36 yards to Ben Skowronek. Two plays after that, Kyren Williams ran for 24 yards to set up a first-and-goal at the 10. Clemson was in danger of falling behind by two scores in the first quarter. But the Tigers stopped two rush attempts then forced Book to throw the ball away on third down.
Jonathan Doerer’s field-goal try hit the right upright. Notre Dame’s lead was still 3-0. It was gone three plays later. Clemson wide receiver Amari Rodgers streaked by his defender and caught Lawrence’s pass on the fly. The 67-yard touchdown gave Clemson a 7-3 lead and and they never gave the advantage back.
Notre Dame’s last real chance to rally would come on its next drive. Book’s 35-yard pass to tight end Tommy Tremble left the Irish 35 yards from the end zone. Three consecutive runs got them seven yards closer. Notre Dame decided to go for it on fourth-and-3.
Clemson chased Book from the pocket. He rolled to his right and wide receiver Avery Davis mirrored him downfield, beyond the marker. Book’s pass was a little behind Davis, who was getting too close to the sideline. Davis got a hand on the ball but couldn’t catch it.
That was the opening the Tigers needed to take over the game.
Clemson’s next drive ended with Lawrence’s 33-yard TD pas to E.J. Williams. Notre Dame went three-and-out on its next drive. Clemson’s next possession ended with a field goal after . Notre Dame ran four plays and punted to Clemson with 2:10 before halftime.
By that point, the Irish were just trying to make it to halftime down two touchdowns. It looked like they might do it when Lawrence passed incomplete on third down near midfield. But Clemson went for the first down and ended up with a touchdown when Etienne broke free for a 44-yard score.
The 24-0 Clemson run made it clear this would not be like game in South Bend.
“I told the guys in the locker room, ‘Look, no trophy is handed out tonight,’” Swinney recalled of the first game vs. Notre Dame. “‘They are going to hand that out in Charlotte, and when we get to Charlotte we’ll be on the field and get the trophy.’”
That’s what happened. Forget revenge. Clemson is thinking much bigger than that. The Tigers are trying to get back to the top of college football. Notre Dame was just in the way.