Clemson’s football program, arguably the biggest powerhouse in college football under head coach Dabo Swinney, fell for the first time since a 2017 contest against Syracuse. Without future NFL prodigy third-year Trevor Lawrence under center at quarterback for the Tigers, with Lawrence being sidelined due to contracting COVID-19, Swinney’s undefeated squad was unable to hold a lead against the undefeated Notre Dame Irish.
Clemson, ranked as the top team in college football, was punched in the mouth on the first play of the game by the No. 4 Irish. On a left side sweep, second-year running back Kyren Williams broke through Clemson’s front seven, assisted by excellent blocking by his offensive line, and tore down the sideline for a 65-yard touchdown. On a day where Clemson’s defense needed to step up to compensate for losing their special signal-caller on the offensive side of the ball, the Tigers continually gave up big plays to the Irish through the first quarter of play.
Fourth-year signal-caller Ian Book had the lights shining on him throughout the night for Notre Dame without Lawrence on the field. He took advantage of a spectacular performance by his offensive line against a weak Clemson pass rush to take several shots down the field, and taking off on his own with the ball in several situations where nobody was open. Less than nine minutes into the contest, Notre Dame held a 10-0 lead.
Doing his best to replace Lawrence under center, first-year quarterback DJ Uiagalelei found his rhythm on his second drive of the day, unloading a beautiful dime past the defense that fourth-year wide receiver Cornell Powell chased down, tearing into the endzone for a 52-yard score to shrink Notre Dame’s lead to three. On the following drive, the Tigers showed their championship prowess, shutting down the Irish’s offense in the red zone on back-to-back drives and forcing Notre Dame to kick two field goals.
Just as quickly as it seemed that Uiagalelei had found his rhythm in the Tigers’ offense, disaster struck on the ensuing drive. On the right side toss to fourth-year running back Travis Etienne, the ball flew awkwardly out of the hands of Uiagalelei and bounced off of the outstretched fingers of Etienne, landing right in the arms of fourth-year linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. Owusu-Koramoah shredded an attempted tackle by Etienne and took the ball back for the score, reestablishing the 10-point lead for the Irish. Lawrence stood on the sideline, wearing a mask and distancing accordingly, attempting to assist his offensive coordinator in what to do to turn the tide against the Irish.
Both teams offenses seemed to find consistency after the hectic first 25 minutes of action, trading field goals in the closing minute of the first half. With a 23-16 lead and five minutes left to play in the third quarter, the Irish were on defense in the red zone, having sacked Uiagalelei on first down and backing the Tigers up to the 11-yard-line. Uiagalelei dropped back on a play-action boot, and weaved an absolute dart through traffic to find a wide-open second-year tight end Davis Allen streaking into the end zone on a crossing route.
Book and the Irish offense drove down the field once more, getting stopped and forced to kick a field goal. Uiagalelei drove the Tigers down the field and were similarly stopped, hitting a field goal as well to notch up at 26-26 with less than seven minutes to play in the fourth quarter.
On the ensuing drive, Uiagalelei and the offense overcame their red-zone struggles, with Etienne punching the ball in from the 3-yard line for the first Clemson lead of the night, 33-26, leaving less than two minutes on the game clock for the Irish offense.
Book displayed great instincts and ball management conducting the Irish offense on a 75-yard march down the field, capping off the drive by rolling out of the pocket on third and goal and delivering a strike to fourth-year wide receiver Avery Davis in the front of the end zone. Opting to go to overtime, the Irish banged through the easy extra point to send the game to overtime at 33-33.
On the first drive, Uiagalelei delivered a strike to Powell on a slant, with Powell being tackled at the 1-yard-line of the Irish after the initial call by the officials was deemed a touchdown. Notre Dame’s defense was unable to hold up against the Tigers, with Uiagalelei faking the handoff to Etienne and punching the ball in himself. The Irish fought their way down the field on the ensuing drive, with Williams punching the ball in on a power run from the 2 yard-line for Clemson. The game was forced to a second overtime period, with the score tied at 40-40.
The Tigers offense fizzled out, and a few excellent runs by Book and Williams gained the Irish a 47-40 lead. Uiagalelei, trying to make everything he could make happen on the following drive, took two costly sacks before failing to convert on fourth and 22. The Irish and their fans stormed the field following the victory, celebrating the first and likely only defeat for the Tigers this season. With a bye week this week, Lawrence is eyeing a return for next Saturday, Nov. 21 against the Florida State Seminoles. Given that Lawrence is likely to leave for the NFL draft following this season and forego his senior year, the Tigers development of Uiagalelei is promising for the football powerhouse’s future.