Clemson 31, Notre Dame 23 – Missed Scoring Opportunities Cost Irish Dearly
- Sunday, 05 November 2023 16:10
Notre Dame has won the battle of roster fluidity five times this season, three times reaching zero and twice falling short. The Irish tried their best to maintain pace in those final two games: five losses nullified Notre Dame (7-3) in Louisville a month ago, and three more cost the Irish a chance at a late comeback win at Clemson on Saturday.
The first two of those errors provided the Tigers (5-4) enough points to cover the margin in the 31-23 victory, and the last error squashed any lingering hopes Notre Dame had for a late return.
"As I told the team in the locker room, this is a really good team, and we knew it all week," Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said. "They had four losses, and as you watched the film, it's a really good football team. It's a Clemson football team that the record doesn't reflect how good this team is.
"When you play a team like that, there are three or four plays in the game where if you turn the ball over, if you miss a punt, if you flip the field on their punt return, ultimately they'll create a result that's an eight-point loss."
To be fully accurate, even if you account for the 10 points Clemson scored without turnovers (one being an interception returned for a touchdown, the other a field goal off a blocked punt), the touchdown should also be adjusted. The Irish scored a touchdown after Xavier Watts responded to an interception at the 2-yard line.
In this regard, if you exclude turnovers and their immediate results, Notre Dame would still have lost Saturday's game by a score of 21-16.
Despite the Irish outgaining the Tigers 329 yards to 285, averaging 5.4 yards per play compared to 4.1, and gaining more yards both on passing and rushing attempts, they still would have lost.
On Saturday, Notre Dame lost in all categories, putting into question its broader and continued success.
Start with third downs.
"We have to be better on third down on both sides of the ball," Freeman said succinctly enough.
The Irish converted just 3 of 13 third-down attempts, not much worse but still worse than the Tigers' 5-of-15. Only once did Notre Dame convert multiple third downs on a drive, unable to methodically march against Clemson's sturdy defense, and even that occasion ended in a missed field goal from 23 yards out.
These two problems are interconnected for the Irish. If any single item cost Notre Dame the victory and a clean path to a New Year's Six bowl more than turnovers, it was the struggle to move the chains and thus finish drives.
"At the end of the day, it comes down to execution," Irish defender Sam Hartman said, completing just 13 of 30 passes for 146 yards. "Personally, I didn't execute well enough. We were there.
Hartman then described in detail a third-and-goal from the 5-yard line late in the first half that ended up incomplete despite veteran receiver Brayden Lenzy later saying there were multiple options on the play.
Tight ends Cane Berrong and Eli Raridon shifted from the right side of the line to the left before the snap, leaving freshman receivers Jayden Thomas and Rico Flores Jr. on the wide side of the field, Thomas in front of Flores. They both began to slant inside, their first steps or two resembling a fade before Thomas broke vertically into the end zone and Flores suddenly broke along the sideline.
In essence, it was a no-risk "pick" play without the risk of being flagged for offensive pass interference as long as Thomas did not actively engage with the defender presumably covering Flores.
Indeed, Flores was open initially.
"Rico was wide open on one of the RPOs, and I just didn't throw him the ball," Hartman said. "I think I was a little late. I didn't put the ball where it needed to be when it needed to be there."
As Hartman rolled further right, Flores was by that point both covered and pinned to the sideline, Thomas squared his route off across the back of the end zone, and Hartman might have had a window, albeit a narrow one, to find him.
"Even later in the game, Jayden was open in the end zone, and I just chucked it to him," Hartman said. "Just unacceptable, honestly. If you want to blame someone, want to tweet at someone, tweet at me, I deserve it."