On a veteran Clemson team that has spent four straight seasons in the college football playoffs, it was a pair of true freshmen that came up big in their 30-3 rout of Notre Dame.
Clemson freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence and wide receiver Justyn Ross did something in one night that had not been accomplished against the Notre Dame defense all season. Notre Dame had only given up a single touchdown pass of over 20 yards all season. In the first half, Lawrence and Ross connected for two such passes.
Lawrence, who had overtaken incumbent starter Kelly Bryant to become the starting quarterback in midseason, threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns against a top-rated Notre Dame pass defense, while Ross caught six of eight targets for 147 yards and two touchdowns. Lawrence’s third touchdown pass was an incredible one-handed grab by Tee Higgins of a deflection by the Notre Dame defensive back in coverage.
The Clemson defense was as good as advertised, harassing Notre Dame quarterback for six sacks while allowing the Irish only 3.6 yards per play. Notre Dame could also only muster a single trip to the red zone. They accomplished all of this despite the suspension of a probable top-10 NFL draft pick in 350-pound nose tackle Dexter Lawrence.
Notre Dame was standing toe-to-toe with Clemson for much of the first half, trailing only 9-3 with five minutes left to play in the second quarter despite an offense that had only managed 58 total yards to that point. The Notre Dame pass rush had harassed Lawrence with the blitz, and the freshman Clemson quarterback found himself facing a 3rd-and-14 on the Notre Dame 42. Then Lawrence calmly found Ross down the seam for a 42-yard touchdown pass, which opened the floodgates.
Notre Dame went three-and-out on their next possession but punted Clemson down to their own 20 with only 48 seconds left in the half. However, it took Lawrence and the Tigers only four plays to score another touchdown, as Higgins capped the drive with his brilliant catch to make it 23-3 at the half.
Notre Dame suffered an unfortunate injury to star cornerback Julian Love in the first half that cost them dearly. Love’s backup, Donte Vaughn, was beaten by Ross for a 52-yard touchdown for Clemson’s first touchdown that would prove to be the difference in the game and was also the defender on Higgins’ brilliant catch for a touchdown at the end of the second half. Vaughn had received limited playing time during the season but had not played at all in the season finale against USC, where the Trojans threw the ball 50 times, according to Sports Illustrated. Love returned in the second half, but by then it was too late.
Clemson will face either Alabama or Oklahoma in the National Championship Game. Notre Dame finishes the season 12-1.