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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Coach Dabo Swinney has directed Clemson to four straight berths in the College Football Playoff since the last time the Tigers and Notre Dame played, a 24-22 Clemson win in 2015.

Saturday, December 29, 2018 1:00 am

2015 win spurred Clemson's rise

Tigers held off No. 6 Notre Dame on rainy night in Death Valley

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

ARLINGTON, Texas – “Tonight it was BYOG, bring your own guts.”

The last time Clemson and Notre Dame met, in 2015, the No. 12 Tigers pulled out a 24-22 victory over the No. 6 Irish in Death Valley, leading Clemson coach Dabo Swinney to deliver that ready-made headline about what it took to win the game.

The Irish and Tigers meet again today at the Cotton Bowl, though the stage is quite a bit larger than the last time. As in 2015, both teams are undefeated, but this time the stakes are a trip to the national championship game.

In addition, playing in a domed arena like AT&T Stadium likely precludes the possibility of a rainstorm affecting the game.

When the teams played in 2015, a storm saturated the entire East Coast and caused then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Clemson graduate, to declare, “It is best if you stay home, stay safe.”

Predictably, an announced crowd of more than 82,000 braved the storm anyway.

“I remember it being loud,” said Notre Dame center Sam Mustipher, then a redshirt freshman. “They're a physical team, very talented. I remember that. I remember running outside zone down on the goal line and trying to get it in for a score and not getting the job done. So, yeah, we remember what happened.”

The outside zone play Mustipher is referring to was the decisive moment in the game. The Tigers jumped out to a 21-3 lead, but the Irish clawed their way back. This was before Clemson had ever been to the CFP and was better known for blowing big games than for winning them. Another such loss seemed at hand.

The Irish climbed within 24-16 and then took over at the Clemson 32 with 50 seconds left following a short punt. It took just six plays to find the end zone on a fade route from DeShone Kizer to Torii Hunter Jr. with seven seconds on the clock. 

With the game on the line, Notre Dame lined up for a two-point conversion. Kizer kept the ball around the right side but was stopped a yard short of the goal line to seal a win for the Tigers.

“It's was man versus man, heart versus heart,” Kizer said of the final play. “And (tackler Carlos Watkins) got there. I didn't lower my shoulder the way I should.”

Those Notre Dame upperclassmen who were with the team for that game remember it as a struggle between two loaded teams. Future first-round picks such as Deshaun Watson, Will Fuller, Shaq Lawson and Quenton Nelson dotted the two rosters.

“I was watching that game and I was saying, 'Wow, this is really football,'” said Notre Dame receiver Miles Boykin, then a true freshman who didn't see the field. “It was almost like an NFL game out there, all the talent. It was just ridiculous the amount of athletes out there.

“That's going to be similar to what we see this time. ... It's going to be fun to watch.”

Boykin expects more of the same in terms of physicality and speed when the teams meet today, but he said the Irish haven't spent much time looking back on that game because it's two different teams. In his mind, “It's a different culture” at Notre Dame than it was then.

The emphasis on the difference between Notre Dame then and Notre Dame now has been a common theme among the Irish this week. Cornerback Julian Love was a senior in high school then and watched the game from the dry comfort of his home. He thinks the Irish are better equipped now to play with an elite team like the Tigers.

“We have the experience,” Love said. “We sort of had it back then, but now it's just completely what makes us tick. ... I think that's special and I think that's going to be the difference.”

In a way, that victory over the Irish kick-started the rise that Clemson has experienced over the last four years. The Tigers went on to finish 14-1 in 2015 and then won the national championship in 2016. With enough guts, Notre Dame could take a similar step.