ARLINGTON, Texas –
How it Happened
The turning point in this game turned out to be the horn that ended the first quarter. In that opening quarter, Notre Dame did everything it needed to do to win. It held the Clemson offense in check, made Trevor Lawrence uncomfortable and moved the ball down the field with short passes and powerful runs. At the end of the first quarter it was 3-3 and Notre Dame might very well have been in front if a play that was called a fumble on the field was (questionably) reversed because the ball was ruled to have been out of bounds before it was recovered.
When the second quarter began, Notre Dame took the field on defense and All-American cornerback Julian Love did not join his teammates. Love missed the entire second quarter with a head injury and cornerback Donte Vaughn was inserted in his place. Clemson smelled blood and attacked the junior cornerback, who had not played a defensive snap against USC in the season finale. Speedster Justyn Ross, a freshman, beat Vaughn down the sideline for a 52-yard touchdown that put the Tigers ahead 9-3 with 12:50 to play in the half. Ross added another big play, this time from 42 yards away on a laser from Lawrence to make it 16-3 with 1:44 to go before halftime.
That should have been the score at the break, but Notre Dame went three-and-out in just 54 seconds and Clemson took a timeout to preserve the clock. Lawrence completed a 34-yard strike to a wide-open Hunter Renfrow, who beat Vaughn, to move the ball into Notre Dame territory and Clemson added 15 more yards on the same play because Jerry Tillery shoved Lawrence to the ground after the ball was well gone. With 10 seconds remaining in the half, the Tigers again threw in Vaughn's direction. This time, the poor corner was in good position and tipped the ball, but Tee Higgins made an incredible one-handed catch in the back of the end zone anyway to make it 23-3 at the break.
The Irish stabilized in the third quarter, with the help of Love, who returned to the game at the start of the third quarter. The defense got a pair of stops and the offense drove deep into Clemson territory twice, but Notre Dame couldn't break through. Quarterback Ian Book took poorly-timed sacks on both possessions and then threw an interception into triple-coverage late in the third quarter. Clemson took over at its own 28 and on the third play of the drive running back Travis Etienne put the game away with a 62-yard touchdown run through the left side. At 30-3, the Tigers coasted home, ending Notre Dame's season.
Player of the Game: Justyn Ross
The freshman receiver caught the two biggest passes of the game, his two scores in the second quarter, burning first Vaughn, then Alohi Gilman. Ross finished with six catches for 148 yards and the two touchdowns. It was his second 100-yard game of the season and first since Week 3, when he broke the mark against Georgia Southern.
Facts and Figures
This is the first of the 14 College Football Playoff games played so far that has pitted two undefeated teams against each other. ... This is the eighth Cotton Bowl in which Notre Dame has played. The Irish are 5-3. ... Notre Dame has never won 13 games in a season. This was the third time the Irish have won 12 games. ... Notre Dame came in No. 1 in the country in yards given up per pass attempt at 5.35. Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence averaged 8.3 yards. Lawrence went 27 for 39 for 327 yards and three touchdowns. ... The Tigers entered the game with the No. 4 scoring offense (45.4 points per game) and the No. 2 scoring defense (13.7 points per game) in the country. ... Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill, a Fort Wayne native, played his last game with the Irish and had 11 tackles, a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry. ... Gilman set a CFP record with a career-high 17 tackles and also broke up a pass. It was the third game in the last four in which he had double digit tackles. ... Clemson played without All-ACC defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence, who tested positive for a banned muscle-booster prior to the game and was suspended for the game. ... Clemson is 38-0 since 2015 when it scores first.
Notre Dame's season is over, finishing at 12-1. The Irish open the 2019 season on the road against Louisville on Sept. 2.