Two key moments cost Notre Dame in the momentum department against Clemson.
Early in the Cotton Bowl, it seemed Notre Dame had their chance. Swelling with hope, the Irish found just how fleeting the opportunity was. Their hope turned to panic, and finally despair. It seemed that the Notre Dame defense would be able to keep the game close, through being disciplined, and doing their jobs.
Obviously, that didn’t last.
There were two reasons Notre Dame lost momentum, and let the game spiral away from them. The first, was turning the ball over on downs early in the second quarter. The second was the injury to Julian Love, which sidelined him for the remainder of the first half.
Love not being able to play exposed the Notre Dame secondary. Donte Vaughn couldn’t keep up with Clemson’s wide receivers, notably Justyn Ross. The Clemson offense attacked Vaughn from the moment he came into the game, and kept attacking him until Love was able to return to action.
Before the game, Notre Dame’s defense had no glaring weaknesses. You could argue they were a little less strong, or fast, but they’re incredibly talented at each position. Most teams have a soft spot to attack. Notre Dame had no soft spots. Well disciplined, solid tacklers, permeated the defense. That is, until Love went out.
With Clemson hitting the newly found soft spot on the Irish defense, they were able to score quickly, and without much resistance. Now, needing to aid Vaughn, other soft spots began to pop up. When the second quarter smoke cleared, the vaunted Irish defense had let up three touchdowns in the quarter — all of them long pass plays.
As for the other momentum shifting play, it also came in the second quarter, which was part of how the game spiraled so badly. A lot of bad came all at once. That was going for it on fourth down, and failing to get it, around the 34 yard line, going in on offense.
Now, first off, going for it was the right thing to do. It was too long to try a kick from, and it’s unacceptable to punt from that field position. To punt there is to play not to lose. When teams play not to lose, they never win. It wasn’t third and long, it was only three yards. Analytics, which a growing number of coaches love to use, would tell you that it makes more sense to go for it there.
The issue? The play call was awful.
In a situation where getting the ball out of Ian Book’s hands was always the best idea, he held onto it for too long. This is because it was a long developing route. As happened all game, this meant Book was under attack has he desperately threw to Myles Boykin. Incomplete. The route should have been a slant, or a quick rub route. It should have been a five yard route, not a fifteen yard route.
The momentum swing in Notre Dame’s favor would have been worth it, and the chance for points at that point in the game made going for it 100 percent worth the risk. You just have to wish they had a better play called.
In the end, Clemson was the better team. However, if not for these two incidents, Notre Dame had as good a chance as anyone has all season to upset the Tigers. However, once the Irish lost momentum in these moments, they never had a chance to take it back.