Clemson got exposed on Saturday night in South Bend.
Just days after being ranked No. 4 in the first College Football Playoff rankings, Clemson was destroyed on the road by unranked Notre Dame, 35-14. All of the Tigers’ flaws were on display and even their perceived strengths fell miserably flat.
Clemson’s offense turned in a terrible performance, putting just 14 points on the board while averaging a measly 4.7 yards per play. Both D.J. Uiagalelei and Cade Klubnik threw interceptions and Uiagalelei’s interception was returned 96 yards for a touchdown.
Clemson was expected to have an edge with Will Shipley at running back, but he was a non-factor as the Tigers were forced to play from behind for nearly the entire game. Notre Dame jumped out to a 7-0 lead with a first quarter special teams play. The Irish burst through Clemson’s punt protection, blocked the kick and returned it for a touchdown.
With the way Clemson looked on offense, that deficit was insurmountable. Clemson advanced into Notre Dame territory just once in the first half, and that resulted in a turnover on downs. And as the half progressed, Notre Dame’s offense got into a bit of a rhythm.
The Clemson defense had a ton of trouble stopping Notre Dame’s rushing attack. The Irish are completely one-dimensional on offense, yet the vaunted Tigers defensive line got pushed around at the point of attack all night. Notre Dame had just 85 passing yards on the night, but ended up rushing for 265 yards in the win. That’s the most rushing yards Clemson has allowed in a game since 2016, when Lamar Jackson and Louisville went for 273 yards.
Back then, Clemson had the offense to overcome a rare off night from its defense. These days, that just isn’t the case. The quarterback play is substandard. The offensive line is mediocre at best. The receivers don’t get open. And the play-calling lacks any imagination.
It’s not a good recipe.
Those offensive struggles proved costly early in 2021 when Clemson dropped two games. But to this point in the 2022 season, there were some signs of improvement. That includes Uiagalelei, who may have been the worst starter in the ACC last fall.
Uiagalelei did enough to get Clemson to a 7-0 record to start this season, but some of his mistake-filled play from 2021 resurfaced two weeks ago against Syracuse. In that game, Dabo Swinney lifted him for Klubnik, the prized five-star freshman. Klubnik wasn’t asked to throw many passes, but he avoided mistakes and helped the Tigers come back to win 27-21.
Against Notre Dame, Swinney again turned to Klubnik. This time it came with the Irish up 14-0 late in the third quarter, but the results were far different from the Syracuse game. With the Tigers backed up near their own end zone, Klubnik’s only throw of the night was intercepted by Notre Dame’s Benjamin Morrison. It was an ill-advised decision, a throw off his back foot as he rolled right.
The turnover gave Notre Dame the ball at the Clemson 14. Three plays later, the Irish had extended their lead to 21-0.
Swinney had a short leash with the freshman and went back to Uiagalelei. On the ensuing drive, the junior led the Tigers into Notre Dame territory, only to throw an interception of his own. It was Morrison again, and he brought it 96 yards to the house to put a bow on a special night for the Irish and a miserable one for Clemson.
Clemson had two scoring drives in the fourth quarter, but it was way too late.
With the loss, Clemson's College Football Playoff hopes took a serious — and potentially fatal — blow.
Notre Dame, meanwhile, has a signature win in Year 1 of the Marcus Freeman era. The Irish lost at home to Marshall and Stanford earlier this season, but were up to the task with Clemson visiting Notre Dame Stadium.