Notre Dame was heavy underdogs in the Cotton Bowl and was supposed to feel disrespected. The game was supposed to be a tight contest turning on a couple breaks for the victors. Nothing of the sort happened as Clemson proved itself thoroughly superior as Notre Dame fell flat on its face again in a big bowl game.
Now, the Irish face an off-season of having to pick themselves up off the ground and prepare for what is lining up to be a very challenging 2019 schedule. Here’s our review of the Cotton Bowl Classic.
|Yards Per Play||3.59||6.89|
In my preview, I mentioned Ian Book needed a 400 yard total offense type of effort in this game for Notre Dame to win. That did not happen, nor was Book anywhere close to performing that well. In fact, as he faced the top defense in the country it was perhaps Book’s worst game with the blue and gold.
Absolutely nothing could be established down field. That seemed equal parts by design (not sure why, other than Book’s struggles going deep), Book being too skittish to set his feet even in clean pockets, Clemson playing great coverage, and Notre Dame not having the horses to get open.
It seemed as if Long & Co. were betting on Book being able to move the ball in the short-passing game and that didn’t work. The Irish QB actually started 7 of 9 with completion streaks of 3 and then 4 only to finish the game with back-to-back completions just twice and no streaks of 3 straight completions among Book’s last 24 attempts.
Notre Dame’s offense simply cannot operate efficiently against a great defense when this happens. A quote made the rounds this past week from a former Notre Dame assistant that Clemson DC Brent Venables would eat Chip Long’s lunch, and yup confirmed! Three points and 3.59 YPP (lowest since the Georgia game last year) was as disheartening as it was pathetic.
The pass blocking was probably good enough to keep the Irish in a closer game but was far from good, as well. I’ll have more on Book below but unless he improves on his second and third reads from the pocket while under mild pressure this offense isn’t going to get markedly better next year.
It will get lost in the tide of a blowout loss but the Irish did enough on the ground to make things respectable against Clemson’s defense. This type of performance just couldn’t be paired with a disappearing passing game. Clemson also did a good job making sure Notre Dame didn’t break any long runs, too. Both Dexter and Book had long runs of 11 yards and that was it for explosiveness.
Irish Running Success
Williams – 10 of 16 (62.5%)
Book – 4 of 9 (44.4%)
Armstrong – 0 of 1 (0.0%)
TOTAL – 14 of 26 (53.8%)
At times, it felt like Book wasn’t doing much with his feet. With sacks removed he did finish with 56 yards on 9 attempts which is fine. It’s those 6 sacks given up that kills the offense. Also, it’s pretty telling that this game came down to Dexter and Book carrying the ball only. Not great for any offense to be so reliant on two players.
If you’re willing to be lenient toward Notre Dame this game really could be summed up by Clemson having a far better quarterback and wide receiver combination. In today’s game, that can and did go a long way especially when Notre Dame lost the services of Julian Love for the majority of the first half.
Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence turned in a near-dominant performance finishing with 327 passing yards, 3 touchdowns, and an important 15 first downs through the air. Unlike his opponent in Book, the Tigers’ Lawrence strung together completion streaks of 6, 4, 7, and 5 throughout the game to keep their offense humming.
Perhaps most of all, Clemson was able to unlock Notre Dame’s penchant for not allowing big plays through the air. With help from his athletic receivers, Lawrence had 4 completions of at least 30 yards with a pair of touchdowns in that mix.
Notre Dame had a perilously thin cornerback depth chart which never really bit them in the ass until today. Watkins transferred (could’ve used you, bro), Crawford was lost for the season, Bracy played a lot as a freshman but couldn’t be trusted, Coleman was limited to nickel only, and that left an extremely cold and untested Donte Vaughn to get abused several times.
If you had told me Travis Etienne would’ve started this game with just 1 successful run on his first 9 carries I would’ve believed the Irish were winning in the second half. Alas, the Irish really bottled up the Clemson run game well into the 3rd quarter but with the passing of Lawrence it didn’t matter.
Tigers Running Success
Etienne – 5 of 14 (35.7%)
Brice – 2 of 2 (100.0%)
Choice – 2 of 2 (100.0%)
Feaster – 2 of 4 (50.0%)
Dixon – 2 of 6 (33.3%)
Law – 2 of 4 (50.0%)
Overton – 0 of 1 (0.0%)
Rencher – 0 of 1 (0.0%)
TOTAL – 15 of 34 (44.1%)
Clemson had a pair of 23-yard gains on the ground in garbage time in the 4th quarter while the 62-yard touchdown run by Etienne was obviously a huge blow. Otherwise, the Tigers weren’t making much hay on the ground (11 yard gain by Lawrence was the 4th longest run) it’s just the Irish couldn’t exploit this enough on defense.
The Irish won the special teams battle but again it didn’t matter. Clemson missed a field goal from 49 yards, Newsome won the punting battle, and Notre Dame forced a fumble that the Tigers were super lucky was ruled out of bounds in a moment that could’ve completely changed the outlook of the game early on.
The injury to corner Julian Love is an obvious turning point.
A series of plays and possessions in the second quarter definitely turned the tide away from Notre Dame. With the game tied 3-3 the Irish drove the ball down to the Clemson 34-yard line* and proceeded to throw a pair of incompletions on third and fourth down. Three plays later, Lawrence connects on a 52-yard touchdown.
Three plays later, Book missed Boykin on a 3rd & 2 crucial drive to try and answer. Clemson drives but misses their field goal only to see an odd run call on 3rd & 10 from the Clemson 45-yard line in which Dexter loses 7 yards on the next Irish drive. Clemson then connected on a 42-yard touchdown and took complete control of the game with a 16-3 lead.
*Not being able to rely on Yoon for anything over 45 yards was a sneaky big disadvantage for this offense.
1 Alohi Gilman – Got torched for a touchdown but played hard with 9 solo tackles (19 total), a forced fumble, and 2 break-ups.
2 Jonathan Bonner – Broke up a couple passes early and played one of his best games of his career.
3 Dexter Williams – A really tough 83 total yards in his last game with the Irish.
We’ve had many examples through the years but let’s enter this as the number 838th one that a team dominating a supposed weak schedule usually means that team is dominant. Everything pointed to Clemson being a great team and Notre Dame found that out on Saturday.
Who’s fault is it that Notre Dame isn’t good enough or not on Clemson’s level? The answer to that question is where you should direct your rage.
I’ve always been it’s the “jimmy’s and joe’s before the x’s and o’s” type of commentator. In that light, the Irish need to do better. Most importantly at the offensive skill positions. There’s been nothing about the recruiting on offense for the past several years that suggests Notre Dame is going to be taking the next step with 2 or 3 young “can’t miss” players. Clemson has 3 or 4 of those guys and the Irish have zero. It makes a big difference in a year when Notre Dame’s defense was veteran-laden and good enough to trade hay makers with the nation’s top defense.
As such, I think people have to be far, far, far more skeptical and critical of Notre Dame’s recruiting. Defensively, the program appears to have hit its stride with talent and numbers, for the most part. On offense, there are only 2 quarterback/running back/wide receiver recruits for the 2017-19 classes (Jurkovec & Austin) inside the Top 200 nationally. The best for the incoming class at those positions is No. 379 nationally! Next year, maybe half of the schedule will have equal or better skill position talent. Think about that. This is less than ideal in a college football world where you absolutely have to be able to walk in to any game and score 30 points if necessary. You cannot manufacture offense on this biggest stage, you need game-wrecking recruits.
It’s been quite the wild season for Ian Book who goes from backup to pushing for some Heisman votes to playing pretty poorly down the stretch and having an off-season to think about this terrible performance. The thing about Book is that–as things stand right now–it looks as though the offense hit its ceiling with him pretty quickly once he became the starter and he’s probably not going to get a whole lot better next year. The semi-final winning quarterbacks just finished their games going a combined 51 of 66 for 645 yards and 7 touchdowns with no interceptions. In this day and age the quarterback has to be able to play at that high of a level and no one should quibble with the belief that Book can’t get the Irish there. We’re not likely to see any Tee Higgins or Jerry Jeudy playmakers to make Book’s job easier, either. After this performance, I’d say it became 30% more likely Ian Book doesn’t finish 2019 as the starting quarterback due to production-based decisions.
I predicted Clemson would score 30 points and that was spot on. The Irish offense scored 20 fewer points that I thought, though. Indictment on the coaching? Probably a little bit as the offense didn’t seem to adjust very well. Still, the offense especially was killed by mental errors and bad breaks. Of course, you can pin that on coaching too! The Irish did cross into Clemson territory on 5 occasions although only in to the red zone once. In a replay the offense probably scores 9 to 13 points with a couple breaks and having a stronger kicker. Not much better and still pretty underwhelming.
Bottom line, Notre Dame has largely coached up a bunch of players and gone through 2017-18 living up to their potential with the recruiting…and it’s still not good enough to be an elite team. On the one hand good job by Kelly & Co. re-setting things and taking the program to another level. However, the ceiling still seems concrete reinforced when it comes to these big bowl/playoff games and it would be completely normal to be very frustrated with that reality and nothing on the horizon looking like it’s going to even attempt to crack that roof above the program.