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  • Associated Press Clemson wide receiver Justyn Ross celebrates a touchdown catch in front of Notre Dame safety Jalen Elliott in the second quarter Saturday. Ross caught two long touchdown passes in the quarter to help the Tigers end the Irish's season.

Sunday, December 30, 2018 1:00 am

Clemson 30 Notre Dame 3

Irish season over in a flash

3 quick TDs bring doom in 2nd quarter

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

ARLINGTON, Texas – It all fell apart in the span of 12:48.

Through the first quarter of the Cotton Bowl on Saturday, No. 3 Notre Dame held its own with No. 2 Clemson, trading field goals and entering the second period tied.

That second quarter proved to be Notre Dame's undoing. With All-American cornerback Julian Love sidelined with a head injury, Clemson picked on backup Donte Vaughn, and freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence completed three long touchdown passes in less than 13 minutes to make it a 20-point halftime lead.

“It was hurting me internally because I obviously wanted to be out there,” Love said. “I wanted to help our team and in a sense I let them down in that regard. I tried to do what I could in the second half, but it definitely didn't feel good.”

That big halftime lead was more than enough cushion for the Tigers, who were never threatened in the second half and moved on to the College Football Playoff National Championship with a 30-3 victory at cavernous AT&T Stadium, ending Notre Dame's dream season in front of an announced crowd of 72,183.

Notre Dame hadn't lost since Nov. 25, 2017, against Stanford, but was once again outplayed on the biggest stage. The Irish stayed close for a quarter, but once Love went out, Clemson pounced. 

“I have to make plays,” Vaughn said. “I just have to step in there and make the plays that need to be made.”

With the score tied 3-3 early in the second quarter, Lawrence looked deep down the right side and found wide receiver Justyn Ross one-on-one with Vaughn. Ross made the catch, shed the tackle and raced 52 yards for a score to give Clemson the lead for good. It was 9-3 after a blocked extra point.

Ross, a true freshman, enjoyed a coming-out party on the national stage. He burned safety Alohi Gilman for a 42-yard touchdown over the middle late in the second quarter to make it 16-3 and finished with six catches for a career-high 148 yards. 

In the final moments of the first half, Clemson again moved into Notre Dame territory. With 10 seconds on the clock, Lawrence threw the ball up for receiver Tee Higgins in the end zone. This time, Vaughn was in good position and tipped the ball, but Higgins made the play of the game, corralling the ball with one hand and getting a foot down for a score and a 23-3 halftime lead.

Love was champing at the bit to return late in the first half, but in being evaluated for a head injury he had to pass certain protocols with the trainers. Coach Brian Kelly said Love didn't pass the memory portion of the protocol until halftime.

All three second-quarter touchdown passes were strikes from Lawrence, who showed no nerves in his first CFP start. The freshman threw for 327 yards and those three scores, flashing the big arm and poise that made him the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2018 class.

Lawrence's performance was even more stark when compared with Ian Book's. The Notre Dame quarterback had easily his worst game of the season, throwing for 160 yards and completing just 50 percent of his throws. He spent most of the game dancing uneasily in the pocket around the Clemson pass rush and hurried several throws.

“We wanted to control what we could control,” Book said. “I was trying to get through my reads as fast as I could. I'm happy with the way the (offensive) line played today. ... It's hard to win a game when you score three points.

“We didn't need any superhuman efforts today. We just needed to do what we'd been doing all season and we weren't able to do that.”

Notre Dame (12-1) moved the ball deep into Clemson territory twice early in the third quarter but were turned away both times and the Tigers (13-0) put the game away when running back Travis Etienne broke through the left side of the line and raced almost untouched for a 62-yard touchdown.

It was an uncharacteristically sloppy game for the Irish. Clemson played brilliantly, but Notre Dame hurt itself with a fumble lost in the opening minutes, an interception in the third quarter and seven penalties for 50 yards, including a bevy of false starts that stalled drives.

The final gun signaled the end of the Notre Dame careers of influential seniors such as center Sam Mustipher, defensive lineman Jerry Tillery, linebacker Te'von Coney and Fort Wayne native Drue Tranquill.

“I feel terrible for our seniors,” Kelly said. “They put us on the brink of a championship. It's now up to everybody else that has eligibility in that locker room to get this football team to a championship.”

Tranquill, a Carroll graduate, completed his Irish career with an 11-tackle performance that also included a quarterback hurry and a pass breakup, but the team fell short of the national championship he and the rest of the Irish were chasing.

“I'm forever grateful to the gold and blue, all our fans, the coaching staff that believed in me, all the players that have put so much into this,” Tranquill said.

“Notre Dame will always be family, it'll always be in my heart.”

dsinn@jg.net