Notre Dame football: Assessing the damage done in the 2018 Cotton Bowl

Notre Dame football took it on the chin after being bullied by Clemson in the 2018 Cotton Bowl Classic.

For Notre Dame football fans, the 2018 Cotton Bowl Classic is a game to forget. It also set the entire Notre Dame football program back light-year in national perception.

Let’s set the scene.

Arlington, Texas. December 29, 2018. The Cotton Bowl Classic would be played at AT&T Stadium, home of the Dallas Cowboys. This stadium isn’t the real Cotton Bowl, which is located at the Texas State Fair in Dallas, but it is the real New Year’s Six game.

It is a real College Football Playoff game. Notre Dame’s first College Football Playoff game ever, and the closest they had been to a National Championship since 2012. They got there on the strength of their defense and offensive line, the strength of most Brian Kelly coached Notre Dame teams.

For his part, Kelly is trying to shake off talk that he can’t win the big games, and that the elite coaches dominate him. On the other side is the elite of the elite. Clemson and head coach Dabo Swinney await the Irish. Along with Alabama, they’ve been the picture of dominance for the past four seasons.

The Tigers have a phenom at quarterback and a defensive line littered with NFL talent. This is only the second time in history the Cotton Bowl Classic would feature two undefeated teams, and the Tigers are a 12-point favorite.

The first quarter was close. Notre Dame seemed to have the dogs to hang with Clemson. Book had a debatable fumble go Clemson’s way early, but the defense stiffened up. Clemson would fumble on a kickoff return, with the ball improbably staying in-bounds and the Irish recovering.

Notre Dame had all the momentum and seemed more than capable of upsetting Clemson. It went to replay, though. The ball supposedly touched out of bounds. Clemson ball. In the end, all the first quarter truly offered was an exchange of field goals.

The second quarter is where the game went sideways for Notre Dame. First, Julian Love went down with an injury. Then, Clemson scored on a deep shot to Justyn Ross. A blocked extra point by Notre Dame and a missed kick by Clemson kept it a one-score game.

Ian Book and an Irish offense that had multiple NFL wide receivers and tight ends couldn’t get the ball moving to close that gap. Meanwhile, Donte Vaughn was simply out of his element at corner though and Clemson took advantage of the weakened secondary.

Clemson added two more touchdowns in the final two minutes of the half. The absence of All-American cornerback Julian Love was devastating. Halftime score: 23-3.

The game was effectively over.

Despite his head injury, Julian Love came out in the second half and the Notre Dame defense regained its composure. Still, the breaks weren’t going Notre Dame’s way. Asmar Bilal lost an interception through the tip of his fingers. It’s not like the field position lost would have mattered much to the offense, who was stuck in first gear.

Later in the third quarter an Ian Book interception set Clemson up near midfield, which Travis Etienne turned into an explosive touchdown run. 30-3 was the score, and there wouldn’t be any change in the fourth quarter.

30-3. Notre Dame is eliminated. Clemson advances. Every preconceived notion about who Notre Dame is in the 21st century has been confirmed. Notre Dame is a has been. They’re a pretender who lives of their reputation and not any realities of the modern game.

30-3. A deceptive final score. With their secondary at full strength, Notre Dame only gave up 10 points to Clemson. Meanwhile, two calls on the field that went Notre Dame’s way were overturned by replay. They shouldn’t have been overturned if the standard is ‘indisputable video evidence.’ They were razor thin margins.

You can’t get too worried about calls not going your way, though. It was a rough night, and those calls stunted momentum, but they’re not why Notre Dame only scored three points.

This game was much closer than the average fan remembers it. It was even closer than the National Championship Game, where Clemson beat Alabama 44-16. Notre Dame lost by 27 to Clemson. Alabama lost by 28.

That Notre Dame team gets unfairly remembered as a team that didn’t deserve to be in the College Football Playoff, but they earned the right and were arguably one bad quarter from making the National Championship Game.

This current Notre Dame team runs the same risk, being remembered for one loss to Clemson rather than a great season overall if they let the score get lopsided against Clemson this Saturday. For the program’s long term reputation alone, they can not let that happen.