Sunday, December 30, 2018

No. 2 Clemson 30, No. 3 Notre Dame 3: Tigers' defense clicked on all cylinders

Photo Credit: Tom Pennington- Getty Images

By: Jon Opiela
Twitter: @jonopiela24

ARLINGTON, TX – The No. 2 Clemson Tigers offense seemed to be clicking on all cylinders throughout the 83rd annual Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic. Clemson’s offense throttled Notre Dame’s defense en route to a 30-3 victory, which clinched a trip to the National Championship game on Jan. 7.

The victory marked the 54th of the seniors’ careers and Clemson’s third trip to the National Championship game in the past four seasons.

“Phenomenal night. We’re going to celebrate this tonight,” said Clemson coach Dabo Swinney. “And we’re going to load up and get back to Clemson and get ready to go to California.”

Clemson recovered a fumble from Ian Book and began its second drive as nine plays later, Greg Huegel split the uprights from 40 yards out to open the scoring. The Irish responded with a ten-play drive of their own, resulting in a Justin Yoon 28-yard field goal to even the game at three.

Injuries piled up quickly for the Fighting Irish in the first half and everything began to go south quickly. Julian Love, Julian Okwara, and Alohi Gilman all spent a significant amount of time on the sidelines with different injuries throughout the first half. Backup cornerback Donte Vaughn got torched by the Clemson offense while Love was injured.

“We noticed he [Love] didn’t come back out there after a few plays that he came out. We didn’t know if he was hurt for sure. Then he stayed out for a while. I’m not sure what happened,” Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence said.

Freshman wide receiver Justyn Ross carried the Clemson offense throughout the first half, hauling in a pair of touchdowns from 52 and 42 yards, respectively. Ross also set a new Cotton Bowl record with 137 receiving yards in the opening half.

“And then Trevor [Lawrence]— him and number eight [Justyn Ross] got it going early,” Swinney mentioned. “That was the spark that we needed. The big plays were the difference in the game.”

Tee Higgins closed the half with a highlight reel grab over Donte Vaughn to make it 23-3, just before the end of the first half. Lawrence finished the first half with 264 passing yards and three touchdowns for Clemson. The three touchdowns from the freshman quarterback set a new College Football Playoff semifinal record.

Travis Etienne ran through the middle of the Notre Dame defense for 62 yards and extended the Tigers lead to 27. On the long touchdown run, Etienne broke Clemson’s single-season rushing record, which was previously held by Wayne Gallman.

“You can’t give up four big plays on defense. We did not do that all year. Uncharacteristic of our defense,” said Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. “And we generated virtually no big plays. We didn’t play the kind of offense that would lend itself to scoring enough points to be a talented Clemson team.”

Notre Dame looked to expose the Clemson defensive line who was without star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence. Earlier this week, Lawrence and two other Clemson players were suspended for having the performance-enhancing drug Ostarine in their systems at the time of an NCAA sanctioned drug test.

Lawrence is a projected first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. Clemson’s defensive line made up for Lawrence’s loss with senior Albert Huggins with essentially no trouble. While Huggins only recorded one tackle, he constantly pressured Book, which caused him to get rid of the ball before he was ready.

Despite the injury, Gilman recorded 18 tackles for the Notre Dame defense, which set a College Football Playoff single-game record. Gilman’s 18 tackles broke the previous record of 15, held by Ohio State’s Raekwon McMillian.

Book finished 17-of-34 on 160 yards passing with an interception. Dexter Williams led Notre Dame on the ground with 54 yards and Book followed with 30. The receiving core for Notre Dame was led by Miles Boykin, who hauled in five passes for 69 yards.

Lawrence finished the game with 327 yards through the air, completing 27-of-39 pass attempts for the Tigers. Etienne lead the ground game with 109 yards on 14 carries. Ross finished the contest after racking up 148 yards of receiving and two touchdowns.

What’s Next:

No. 2 Clemson will head to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, CA to take on No. 1 Alabama for the third time in four seasons for the national title. The National Championship game will take place on Jan. 7 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN.