The Notre Dame football program has, as of late, provided us with a boatload of reasons to exclaim how much we love this team, year after year. If you’re like me, it’s entirely possible to be mostly thrilled with the on-field results and still admit that we’re pining for a bit more. Life is full of grey areas, and something as trivial as football is allowed to have them too. It’s been an insanely good run with a plethora of great wins that remain great wins no matter what others (internal or external to the fanbase) might think. On Friday, though, I wrote: “‘Now or never’ is rarely accurate, but you can hardly draw up a more favorable set of breaks for Notre Dame to kick the elephant in the room to the curb. They’ve gotta win the damn thing.”
Well? They won the damn thing. 54 weeks or so after the nadir in Ann Arbor, the Irish climbed back up the mountain and find themselves at a summit they haven’t seen in decades (that Michigan is back to its status as running national joke is a beautiful bit of chiasmus). It’s not often that game seven of a ten-game regular season is a triumphant culmination after years and years of building (and rebuilding) a program, but this game was always going to be a referendum on ND’s place in the national landscape. Brian Kelly is completely vindicated in his claim that the Irish can play with anyone. More importantly, the team showed they can beat anyone.
You know who else showed he can beat anyone? Ian God Damn Book. Irish legend forever and there’s not a thing anyone can do about it. Dude bRoUgHt HiS oWn GuTs and delivered the best game of his career on the biggest stage of his career. He was exquisite under pressure and ran the offense as well as you could possibly hope.
The Irish front was absolutely stellar in countering the variety of blitz packages Brent Venables threw at the Irish. How are those Jeff Quinn complaints looking now, folks? Book was inevitably under duress from time to time, but the Notre Dame front weathered the storm and put their quarterback in a position to lead. Kyren Williams now qualifies as an honorary offensive lineman, btw.
23 gave us a performance that won’t be soon forgotten. He and his blockers immediately set the tone, he protected his quarterback with an abandon rarely seen at his position, and he was undoubtedly the best running back to take the field on Saturday night. Tommy Rees has rightly received plenty of praise for how this offense has performed, but Lance Taylor deserves your respect and attention as well.
Rees really did pull out all the stops for this one, to his credit. Plenty of motion and misdirection, a notable reliance on a trips bunch formation we haven’t seen all that much before — the Clemson defense was on its heels for long stretches of play, and a lot of it is thanks to his playcalling and all the new looks the offense unveiled.
There’s simply too many players who contributed something significant to this win to mention here. JOK had (fuck it) his Heisman moment. Kyle was Kyle, the superglue that holds this defense together and elevates everyone else’s play. Tommy Tremble was an absolute madman, as we’ve come to expect. Without those contributions from Avery Davis and Javon McKinley, the Irish lose. Kurt Hinish and Jon Doerer and Nick McCloud and MTA and Jarrett Patterson and Ade Ogundeji, man, I just love the whole lot of ‘em. It was a thing of beauty.
Predictably, though, it took every ounce of the team’s physicality and unbroken mental focus to secure the W. The Irish dictated how things went in the early going, which was an unexpected pleasant surprise. Clemson landed a whole bunch of effective punches in response; much less surprising. The chef’s kiss of it all is how the Irish responded to what honestly felt like a loss reeeeeeal deep into the fourth quarter, somehow getting a redux of Georgia ‘19 and perfectly sticking the landing. No panic in this group at all, not even a little bit.
Doubting Clark Lea for even a second is so stupid. Shayne Simon lived up to his recruiting hype seemingly in the snap of a finger, and Drew White was as locked in as he’s been this year. Can you imagine ever doing something as cool as making Travis Etienne a non-factor on the football field? Geez. I was terrified at the prospect of D.J. Uiagalelei on the run, and Clemson’s designed keepers were nowhere near as effective as the ones Rees drew up for Ian Book. The man’s a wizard, I really just don’t know how else to explain it.
Uiagalelei, though, will be a bona fide Heisman contender next year. There’s no way around it.
We went on record (twice) advocating for an all-or-nothing two-point attempt, with the thought that the odds of gaining a few yards in one swoop were greater than outlasting the top-ranked team in the country in an unpredictable overtime back and forth. Brian Kelly had other ideas, likely informed by Clemson’s recent success at stonewalling two-point tries (14 of 15, including a couple vs. the Irish). He was proven right by both his offensive and defensive lines, who left little doubt after Clemson’s quick strike to open the first period. That’s a killer instinct I barely recognized, but could not be any happier about. Daelin Hayes’ vicious sack to put the Tigers in a near-hopeless third and long was an instantly iconic moment for the team captain.
It’s appropriate that the Irish have to confront another ghost from their past immediately following the program’s biggest win in decades. The ACC sticking Boston College after what was always likely to be a #1 matchup is accidentally (?) hilarious, if a little cruel, but might as well kill both birds.
One cool thing that Brian Kelly and crew have done for the school and the student body is remake Notre Dame Stadium into a readymade graveyard for incoming opponents. By my count, the class of 2021 will have been witness to 25 home games in four years. 24 were wins. This includes stomping conference champion Southern Cal by five scores, followed up by running a hyped-up NC State team out of the stadium. They dominated Michigan to set up an undefeated regular season. They sent #7 Stanford spiraling and out of the polls by season’s end. Florida State visited twice and never had a chance. They made one of the best Navy squads in years look like a JV team. And in the final matchup with students on-campus this year, they played the best game of their collective lives against the best team in the nation, cementing a legacy and giving us a reason to keep an eye on ESPN Classic programming for the rest of our lives. The lads did it, the absolute madmen, they did it. It’s been a joyous few years on the football field, and things are only getting better. I’ll love those guys forever.