CLEMSON – If there’s any doubt about Clemson’s fitness as a College Football Playoff candidate, it may have been assuaged with a 24-22 win Saturday night over legendary Notre Dame.
On a cool dark October night accompanied by a steady rain that added to the atmosphere and created occasional havoc for both teams, No. 12 Clemson matched No. 6 Notre Dame’s muscle, grit and swagger, surviving a fourth-quarter rally after the Irish pulled within two points.
“Tonight it was B.Y.O.G,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney, “bring your own guts.”
After slipping twice in the polls, Clemson was on a mission to command respect, and with a 21-3 lead after three quarters things tracking well until Notre Dame caught fire.
Linebacker B.J. Goodson recovered a fumble and intercepted a pass to end two of Notre Dame’s final three possessions in the final seven minutes.
Still the Irish scored and had a chance to tie with seven seconds to play when quarterback DeShone Kizer hit Torii Hunter Jr., son of the Minnesota Twins outfielder, for a one-yard touchdown with seven seconds to play.
With the haunting memory of the 1977 game here when Joe Montana scored the winning touchdown for Notre Dame in the fourth quarter, Kizer’s run for the two-point was snuffed by Clemson tackle Carlos Watkins to preserve the victory.
A freshman starting his second game, Kizer had hit C.J. Prosise for a 56-yard touchdown and run three yards to bring the Irish to the brink, but his pass for a two-point conversation after the first TD sailed over 6-foot-5 Corey Robinson.
Clemson forced four turnovers and survived Kizer’s 18-for-34 passing for 321 yards.
Meeting for the first time since the teams swapped road wins during the 1977 and 1979 season, Clemson won by minimizing mistakes, exploiting early opportunities and smothering a Notre Dame offense that averaged 531 yards in winning its first four games.
Notre Dame’s defensive strategy was one that’s become common this season – keep a lid on quarterback Deshaun Watson. Nevertheless, Watson passed for two touchdowns and ran for a third, and Wayne Gallman rushed for 98 yards on 22 carries as Clemson won its fourth straight and ran Swinney’s record in Death Valley to 42-6.
Notre Dame finished with 437 yards to Clemson’s 298, but the Tigers were guilty of only one turnover. Watson completed 11 of 22 for 97 yards and was intercepted on a corner route to the end zone, however he added 93 yards on 16 carries.
None of Notre Dame’s first four opponents scored with their first possessions. Clemson scored with its first two and led 14-0 midway through the first quarter.
After taking the opening kickoff its 36-yard line, Clemson stunned Notre Dame when Watson snaked over the left side on a quarterback draw from an empty backfield for 38 yards to the Irish 26.
In last season’s “biggest game of the year,” Cole Stoudt missed Jordan Leggett for a touchdown pass in the first quarter at Florida State and it was downhill from there. Two weeks ago Watson missed Leggett with a pass that would have iced the Louisville game, and Clemson survived.
On third down at the Notre Dame 6, Watson executed a nifty play-action boot, Leggett caught the toss and dove into the end zone for a 7-0 lead after Greg Huegel’s kick 2:41 into the game.
A scuffed Notre Dame punt of 16 yards put Clemson back in business at the Irish 42.
Watson sprinted right and hit Hunter Renfrow for 16 to the 26. On second-and-seven, Watson fired a dart to Artavis Scott at the 3-yard line. Scott bounced off two defenders for the second touchdown with 8:43 to play in the first.
Aided by a third-down pass interference on Jadar Johnson, Notre Dame penetrated to the Clemson 30 with its second possession but the threat stalled and Justin Yoon kicked a 42-yard field goal, the longest of his career.
The 14-3 score held, marking the first time this season Notre Dame had not scored a touchdown in the first half.
Notre Dame missed an opportunity to muzzle the crowd after being backed up to the Clemson 19 by three successive five-yard penalties including two for delay of game, but Kizer’s pass slipped through Will Fuller’s hands at the 43-yard line.
Watson’s 21-yard touchdown run after Notre Dame fumbled the opening kickoff of the second half made it 21-3. Greg Huegel added a 35-yard field goal in the fourth.
Star of the game: Defensive end Shaq Lawson, facing what was called the nation’s best offensive line, totaled seven tackles including 3½ tackles for loss.
Stat of the game: Clemson rushed for nearly 200 yards.
Play of the game: Quarterback Deshaun Watson didn’t have a Heisman Trophy game, but on Clemson’s first play he took a draw play for 36 yards setting up Clemson’s first touchdown. Notre Dame had not allowed a score on an opponent’s first possession.
The Beast: Wayne Gallman rushed for 98 yards on 22 carries but seemed to tire late, probably Watson was the only other player to run the ball more than once.
Conservative: Though Notre Dame was determined not to give big plays to the Clemson offense, the Tigers called a peculiarly conservative game, particularly in the fourth quarter.
Specials: Punter Andy Teasdall was superb, flipping the field twice early in the game. Kicker Ammon Lakip, in his first game back from a suspension, forced a fumble. Artavis Scott returned 4 kicks for 128 yards.
Who: Clemson vs. Georgia Tech
When: Oct. 10, TBA
Where: Memorial Stadium
TV: ABC or ESPN