Then Clemson lost, which almost never happens. Then Notre Dame won, which almost never happens against top-five opposition. Then many of the 11,011 fans stormed onto the field to form a giant green blob of jam-packed revelers amid a global pandemic. "Careful out there," said that announcer, Mike Collins, shortly after telling the final score, which had No. 4 Notre Dame upending No. 1 Clemson, 47-40, in two overtimes, after Kyren Williams's two overtime touchdown runs and one emphatic closing defensive stop.
It ended Clemson's 36-game regular season winning streak that dated all the way back to a Friday night in Syracuse in 2017. It upped Notre Dame's record against top-five teams to 2-19 across the last two decades, with the first win over a No. 1 team since that breathless day back in 1993 against Bobby Bowden's Florida State. It gave the Irish (7-0) a win over a program that pummeled it 30-3 in a College Football Playoff semifinal 679 days earlier. It had enough important plays to make your head hurt and your eyes dance, so many that you could forget how Clemson linebacker Jake Venables put a mighty yanking on Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book one time in the third quarter and caused Book to fumble into the end zone from almost its doorstep.
"A night I'll never forget," said Book, who seems to have quarterbacked Notre Dame for 10 years even if it's only three. "No matter how old I am, I know I'll remember this game forever."
He might even remember the pregame and how his head coach, Brian Kelly, tried to coax his players into deepened confidence by warning them how fans would storm the field post-victory, and how given these covid-19 times they ought to scurry for the tunnel rather than dawdling merrily.
Asked by a distanced NBC interviewer where he stood within that very setting, Kelly said, "I'm in the tunnel." Said his phenomenal linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, "Man, Coach Kelly, might as well call him a prophet. Prophet Kelly." Said receiver Avery Davis, "The fans storming the field was crazy. It's different when you see it from the movies, but when you're out there it's kind of weird." Said dynastic Clemson Coach Dabo Swinney, "That was an unbelievable college football game." And it all hinged on a goose bump of a 53-yard pass that changed everything on a night when everything kept changing.
That pass, which Book directed deep and flawlessly to Davis as Davis ran from one-on-one coverage into open terrain, ended with 49 seconds left in regulation. It tied the game at 33. It took the game from mad to madder. It helped Kelly to wind up speaking of how coaching is best "when you watch your players exhibit resolve and exhibit grit and refuse to lose a football game against the number-one team in the country."
At first, Clemson's remarkable football DNA had spent the evening under an exacting Notre Dame microscope, which seemed only to reveal again a knack for winning so deeply embedded that it can render irrelevant a pile of inconveniences. Look at that pile. Clemson lacked Trevor Lawrence, the super-duper-star quarterback on the sideline in coronavirus hiatus. It lacked three defensive starters as Notre Dame outgained it 519-473. It trailed 10-0 and 23-10. It soldiered on behind surely one of the most smashing backup quarterbacks possible, the true freshman and five-star recruit D.J. Uiagalelei, who made his second start while looking like he made his 32nd.
He completed 29 of 44 passes for 439 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions. To give his team a 33-26 lead with 3:33 left, he calmly steered a 12-play, 74-yard drive that ranged from the 9:14 mark of the fourth quarter to the 3:33 mark. Then Clemson stopped Notre Dame on downs. Then it looked done.
It refused to be done, because it wanted to be a crazy thing, so it insisted upon more mania. Notre Dame stopped Clemson, and beginning with 1:49 left, Book took the Irish and the fans and the public-address man on a 91-yard trip. Fifty-three of it came on the pass to Davis, a long and open stunner that got Notre Dame to the Clemson 4-yard line and set up Book's four-yard touchdown pass to Davis just inside the goal line with 22 seconds left.
Then Uiagalelei brought his Hercules arm to the overtime as well, zooming one to a slanting Cornell Powell, a Clemson senior receiver having a heyday after several years of spot duty. Powell scored, but then didn't after another review, and so Uiagalelei did, from the 1-yard line. Then Notre Dame knotted it up at 40 in five efficient plays and Williams's first three-yard touchdown run. Then Notre Dame went ahead behind Book's strong running and passing and Williams's second three-yard touchdown run.
Then Uiagalelei, who hadn't been sacked all night, got sacked twice. Owusu-Koramoah and Adetokumbo Ogundeji shared the first. Daelin Hayes took the second. Two further passes amounted to a hapless muddle, and fans stormed the field, and Uiagalelei wound up saying, "I felt like I played okay, just not (well) enough to get it done."
Two teams who might meet again in December in the ACC championship game made so many plays that the first half seemed a faded memory. It had Williams's 65-yard run through a pretty alley and up the left sideline on the second play of the game and first official play, following a penalty. It had Uiagalelei's gorgeous 53-yard touchdown pass on a post to Powell, who caught six passes for 161 yards. It had the heroics of Owusu-Koramoah, a 215-pound senior force of wreckage from Tidewater in Virginia and coming soon to an NFL city near you.
He turned up in front of Clemson veteran running back Travis Etienne when the latter bobbled a pitch so that Owusu-Koramoah could grab it in the air and score from 26 yards for a 20-10 lead. He dislodged the ball from Amari Rodgers after a catch looked bound for a first down, whereafter Jonathan Doerer's 45-yard field goal made it 23-10.
Of course, Clemson has been around the block enough times to know how to react to temporary horror. It just finally came across a game with a heartbeat even bigger than its own.