In the pregame buildup to Saturday’s matchup against No. 1 Clemson, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly insisted it was “not the end-all” for the program, win or lose.
Kelly was right. No. 4 Notre Dame’s 47-40 double-overtime victory against the Tigers doesn’t ensure an ACC championship, a College Football Playoff berth or the program’s first national championship since 1988.
Notre Dame students rushed the field despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. That will temporarily distort the lasting memory of what the Irish (7-0, 6-0 ACC) pulled off at Notre Dame Stadium against the Tigers (7-1, 6-1 ACC), a game Sporting News thought would be the game of the year before the season started.
Sometimes it’s good to be right. This was more than one game. This was a game that silenced the talk about the program being overrated or undeserving of the special treatment that comes with that fat NBC contract. This was a game that put the Irish back in the heavyweight class with No. 2 Alabama and No. 3 Ohio State.
Those programs took the Irish’s place at the top of college football’s pecking order in the last 30 years. Notre Dame waded through the Bowl Championship Series and College Football Playoff eras with blips of success that were overshadowed by the corresponding failures.
You don’t remember the Irish going 12-0 in 2012. You remember Alabama blasting Notre Dame 42-14 in the BCS championship game. You don’t remember the Irish finishing 12-0 in 2018. You remember Clemson throttling the Irish 30-3 in the College Football Playoff semifinals.
With the victory against Clemson on Saturday, Kelly affirmed those losses were “not the end-all” either. The Irish are 30-3 since 2018. This validated that success. You can’t call Notre Dame overrated, and we know the next thing that will come out of the nay-sayers’ mouths:
Clemson star quarterback Trevor Lawrence didn’t play because of a positive COVID-19 test last week. Yes, that was a huge factor, but freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei passed for 439 yards and two touchdowns, adding another on the ground. He rallied the Tigers back from a 10-point halftime deficit. He led the go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter, too.
The more important narrative should be that the Tigers’ talent didn’t overwhelm Notre Dame. Clemson had 34 rushing attempts for 33 yards. The Irish converted 10 of 19 third downs and took advantage of the Tigers’ mistakes.
In the past, Notre Dame folds in this spot and laments the missed opportunities. There were more than enough of those, too. Two first-half drives ended with red-zone field goals because of a false start and a dropped pass, respectively.
And, with the score tied at 23 in the third quarter, Book appeared to have the go-ahead touchdown run on a quarterback keeper. He fumbled, however, and the ball trickled into the end zone where Clemson’s Baylon Spector pounced on it. That looked like the sequel to the “Bush Push” against No. 1 USC in 2005. Uiagalelei led the go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter, and Travis Etienne scored the go-ahead touchdown with 3:33 remaining for a 33-26 lead.
Then something different happened. Notre Dame responded in the clutch: Book hit Avery Davis for a 53-yard deep ball. That set up the game-tying 4-yard touchdown to Davis. Still, there had to be doubts. Remember when Eric Crouch led No. 1 Nebraska to a thrilling overtime win against Notre Dame in 2000?
The Irish didn’t let that happen again. Book guided back-to-back scoring drives in overtime. Kyren Williams, who rushed for 140 yards and three scores, closed out both drives with short touchdown runs. The Irish’s pass rush came up with back-to-back sacks in the second overtime that forced a fourth-and-24.
Uiagalelei couldn’t come up with the miracle pass, and Notre Dame celebrated with its first victory against No. 1 at home since the legendary “Game of the Century” against Florida State in 1993. The students storming the field simply made it a “Game for this Century” in an uncertain season where you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.
Notre Dame can at least plot out the next month. The Irish — with a one-year lease in the ACC — have sole possession of first place. A rematch with Clemson seems inevitable, and it’s almost certain Lawrence, who was on the sideline with his mask on, will be back on the field for that one.
Notre Dame has a strong Playoff case win or lose, but that might not mean much on Dec. 19 if the rematch is a blowout. After all, the Irish wouldn’t have that ACC championship.
So Kelly’s thoughts ring true, even if this still felt like more than one game.
Saturday was a reminder that no program wakes up the echoes quite like Notre Dame when it beats the No. 1 team in the country. This was the best game of the 2020 season, and the rematch will likely be the most anticipated Power 5 conference championship game.
It is “not the end-all,” not by a long shot. It’s a new beginning for the Irish.
Even in 2020, that’s something to behold.
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