CHARLOTTE — Having sinned against 21st-century college football nature on the night of Nov. 7, an excellent Notre Dame team spent a chunk of Saturday in a thumping atonement. It atoned all through the 34-10 mauling it took from the Clemson dynasty, atoned with 263 yards after 518 the previous time, atoned as the big-boy rushing totals flipped from 208-34 in favor to 219-44 against, atoned for those 47 points back then to their puny 10 just now, and kept atoning until it will have to rely upon a 13-member committee for forgiveness.
Of all the possibilities leading up to this delicious game of the year that doubled as the ACC championship game, comeuppance got little attention, a nod to how formidable No. 2 Notre Dame had become in its unbeaten ACC cameo. Yet comeuppance did roar into a great stifling that will leave many minds, green and otherwise, wondering through the night whether the College Football Playoff selection committee’s final rankings might dock the Fighting Irish (10-1) to No. 4 or to somewhere just beneath.
Those places just beneath can be such bummers, not that No. 3 Clemson (10-1) would know, having just flexed its big-game élan again to win its sixth straight ACC title — the past four by 176-40 — and to clinch a sixth straight playoff appearance while sending Notre Dame campaigning.
“There’s no doubt this football team is one of the four best teams in the country,” Coach Brian Kelly said, “and we’ll leave the rest of it up to the committee.”
That’s a campaigning sound the Tigers never have had to make in their astonishing 79-6 run since 2015, a number that blares a rarefied knack for repairing rare insults. To fix a glitch, of course, it always helps to have two things Clemson had here: Trevor Lawrence on the field behind a face mask rather than on the sideline behind a cloth mask and graduate linebacker and Clemson Rushmore figure James Skalski on the field rather than on the mend.
Those two stalwarts exited the howling night last month in South Bend, Ind., with Notre Dame fans storming up to them with phones and barbs, a setting Lawrence called “obviously part of it.” But he also said, “You just kind of keep those images in your head.”
Skalski said, “When you listen to some of the things they were saying leading up to this game, they pushed some buttons I think they wish they hadn’t pushed.”
Coach Dabo Swinney said of Lawrence, “It would be a crying shame if the Heisman didn’t attach their name to Trevor Lawrence.”
Defensive coordinator Brent Venables said of Skalski, “He’s been around the block a number of times, but he brings the leadership component that’s like having a quarterback on your defense.”
And Lawrence said of Clemson: “We’re trending in the right direction. We’re playing our best football, and our best football’s ahead still.”
From his coronavirus hiatus Nov. 7 in the Tigers’ 47-40 double-overtime loss to his regal presence of Dec. 19 in the Tigers’ romp, the difference shone even without coming as a slight to freshman D.J. Uiagalelei.
Uiagalelei, Lawrence’s five-star backup, qualified as terrific in South Bend, especially for someone aged 19 in making his second collegiate start. Lawrence, college football’s most prominent player, qualifies as something several streets beyond terrific in general, even for someone aged 21 in his 34th collegiate start.
He returned with a long paragraph of visual delights Saturday. The otherworldly combination of ease and zip on his passes shone in a 67-yard beauty deep to Amari Rodgers for a 7-3 lead in the first quarter and in a step-up-in-the-pocket 33-yard blazer to E.J. Williams for a 14-3 lead in the second — with each receiver practically floating to the end zone: Rodgers to the middle, Williams to the left pylon. The slot machine of Lawrence’s total yards wound up on 412. He threw for 322 on 25-for-36 passing. He also ran fairly wild: 14 times for 90 yards and a streaming 34-yard touchdown for a 31-3 lead in the third quarter. He ran enough that he served sometimes as a 6-foot-6 decoy for running back Travis Etienne, who rushed 10 times for 124 yards and a 44-yard touchdown for a 24-3 lead just before halftime.
“It’s the difference-maker,” Kelly said of Lawrence’s running. “His ability to run really stresses the coverage calls. It stresses a lot of things that you do in terms of your fits.”
For a spillover paragraph, he also blocked, Lawrence did, fending off safety DJ Brown to free Etienne on a third-and-seven running play before Etienne’s score. Even a boo-boo led to gold: Lawrence accidentally spiked a snap late in the first half to bring a fourth and one, then did some fine reading to hand to Etienne and send him to the left, through the defense and to the great beyond.
“It was really good,” the great Etienne said, “to run out there and be able to impose our will on another defense.”
If Lawrence mattered, though, Clemson’s defense mattered just as much, with that curious knack for solving the calculus from the other side as the game proceeds. Notre Dame dried up.
A team averaging 37.7 points coming in saw its possessions go 46 yards, then 56, then 55, then minus-3, 16, minus-1, minus-11, 12 and 25 as things got settled with the fourth quarter as filler. Eventually it managed to go forward 75 yards in that fourth quarter, dressing the windows from 34-3 to 34-10.
Ian Book, the senior quarterback with a sterling record, seemed to have ample options on the first two marches — to a 51-yard field goal and a 24-yard missed field goal that glanced ghoulishly off the right upright. Then they all seemed to go away, as if edited out of the scenery.
Finally, midway through the third quarter, he had a play on which he roamed the field all the way to the right and then all the way to the left, looking and looking, until he found nothing out there and exited out of bounds for a loss of two yards after a run of about 50. That fit with what Kelly saw, a Clemson with a rush more from the middle than from the ends, the ends in a “contain mode” that left Book less space.
“We just want to play again,” Book said, his excellent team disfigured right when it seemed ready to go top-rung, right after its accomplished coach had spoken with a stunning myopia Friday of declining a Rose Bowl bid if his players’ parents weren’t allowed to attend under pandemic regulations. Suddenly, the team left in the wreckage of atonement by Clemson looked as if it ought to accept whatever it might get.
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