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Wednesday, April 24, 2024
The Observer

‘One of those special moments’: Irish knock off No. 4 Clemson 35-14

For the second time in three years, the Irish faithful found themselves celebrating on the field as Notre Dame knocked off an undefeated Clemson squad. When junior quarterback Drew Pyne lined up in victory formation and the clock ticked toward zero, fans and students alike spilled onto the field in jubilation. 

“I really didn’t want to leave that field,” head coach Marcus Freeman said after the game. “Just [to] spend some time with those students, and, man, this is a game that I’ll never forget.” 

Unlike in 2020, when the crowd was limited to mostly students, a sellout crowd got to experience the Irish victory. Also unlike 2020 — a 47-40 double overtime victory — the outcome wasn’t in doubt for nearly as long. 

Notre Dame was the far superior team on both sides of the ball, particularly in the trenches. The Irish rushed for 263 yards while limiting Clemson to just 90 yards on the ground. Prior to the game, Clemson’s defensive line–which has multiple projected first-round picks–had limited opponents to under 90 yards rushing per game. 

“We knew going into it that we had to run the ball,” Freeman said. “You look at every game that we have won, I think we rushed the ball 40 plus times. That’s been our backbone. We knew this defensive line was special, but we couldn’t shy away from our strength.” 

The weather was expected to play a significant factor, with winds gusting upwards of 40 miles per hour throughout the day on Saturday. It may have been the weather, or the quality of each team’s defense, but both offenses struggled to gain any traction early on. 

It was the special teams unit that provided the early breakthrough for Notre Dame. Thanks to two holding penalties on the Tigers, the Irish forced a three and out on Clemson’s first drive of the game. 

Clemson lined up to punt, but junior linebacker Jordan Botelho blocked the kick, and it was recovered in the air and returned for a touchdown by sophomore linebacker Prince Kollie to open the scoring. It was Notre Dame’s sixth blocked punt of the season, which leads the nation and broke the modern-day school record. 

“I challenged that group yesterday. I said, listen, you won’t surprise anybody,” Freeman said.   “Everybody in the country knows you’re coming after a punt. When you find ways to execute and you find ways to play with relentless effort, it doesn’t matter if a team knows you’re coming after a punt or not.” 

Junior quarterback Drew Pyne struggled mightily in the first half, completing just 4 of 10 passes for 41 yards. However, Clemson’s D.J. Uiagalelei was not much more effective. He completed 9 of his 12 attempts but ended up with an identical 41 yards. 

Uiagalelei was seemingly under pressure every time he dropped back to pass. Notre Dame dialed up the blitz early and often, tallying four sacks in addition to four quarterback hurries. Senior JD Bertrand was particularly effective, tallying 12 total tackles and 2 sacks. 

It was a far cry from Uiagalelei’s performance the last time he played in Notre Dame Stadium when he passed for 439 yards, the most ever by an opposing quarterback. 

Neither team entered the red zone until late in the second quarter. Sophomore running back Audric Estime took over on Notre Dame’s final drive of the half, rushing for 35 yards and picking up three first downs. Pyne capped the drive with a five-yard touchdown run to make it 14-0 for the Irish at the break. 

Estime and fellow sophomore running back Logan Diggs both gashed the Tiger’s defense time and time again. Diggs would finish with 17 rushes for 114 yards, while Estime added 104 yards and a touchdown on 18 attempts. 

Diggs praised the performance of the offensive line. “They were one of the best o-lines in the country this week,” he said, adding that “a lot of holes that we had tonight we ran through untouched.”

Pyne attempted just seven passes in the second half as Notre Dame called run play after run play, to great success. According to Diggs, the offensive line (was) probably more excited than everybody else.

“They like having the game in their hands, and we always tell them, we’re only going to go as far as you guys go,” he said.

The second half was more of the same for the Notre Dame defense as well. The Tigers continued to struggle to get anything going offensively. After their first two drives of the third quarter stalled out, Uiagalelei was sent to the sidelines to start the next drive in favor of freshman Cade Klubnik — a consensus five-star recruit and the top quarterback in his class — who was immediately intercepted by freshman cornerback Benjamin Morrison. 

The interception gave the Irish great field position. It took them just three plays to march into the end zone from 14 yards out, giving Notre Dame a commanding 21-0 lead. Klubnik did not see the field again, but that didn’t stop Morrison.

With Clemson threatening deep into Notre Dame territory to open the fourth quarter on their next drive, Morrison stepped in front of Uiagalelei’s pass and returned it 96 yards for a touchdown, sending an already raucous Notre Dame stadium into pandemonium. 

“He’s an ultimate competitor that doesn’t get shaken,” Freeman said of Morrison. “It’s really uncommon for a freshman to be like that.” 

Despite the sizable advantage, Notre Dame wasn’t done celebrating. After Clemson finally got on the board with just over ten minutes remaining, the Irish put together yet another clinical drive, which culminated in a 17-yard touchdown reception by junior tight end Michael Mayer. 

It was Mayer’s 16th career touchdown, breaking Ken MacAfee’s record for most touchdown receptions by a tight end in Notre Dame history. Mayer had a crowd of family and friends in attendance to celebrate the momentous occasion, including his brother, A.J., a quarterback at Arkansas State. 

“For him to be able to come to this game, I think (it) is his second game of my career here he’s been able to come to. Very, very special,” Mayer said. 

Clemson would score another touchdown before the game ended, making the final score 35-14, but it did nothing to dampen the jubilant mood throughout the stadium.  

“I wish I could explain exactly how this season has gone. You can’t,” Freeman said, adding, “But you know what?  I'm happy that the kids continued to believe in what we’re doing, and today was one of those special moments.”