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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press Clemson running back Travis Etienne runs away from Notre Dame safety Jalen Elliott to score a touchdown in the second half Saturday, one of three long scoring plays for the Tigers.

Sunday, December 30, 2018 1:00 am

Irish believe they've closed gap

Loss to Clemson not comparable to '13 loss: Kelly

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

ARLINGTON, Texas – For Notre Dame fans, it was the same nightmare all over again. Just like in the 2013 BCS Championship Game against Alabama, the Irish didn't simply lose on the biggest stage, they were blown out.

They were blown out in such a way that by the end of the third quarter of the Irish's 30-3 loss to Clemson in the Cotton Bowl, social media was lighting up with outrage that Notre Dame had even been included in the College Football Playoff. 

The view from the Notre Dame locker room was much different. 

The Irish didn't feel they were outclassed. This wasn't a game in which they ran into a juggernaut against whom they couldn't compete. This wasn't 2013. Notre Dame simply didn't play well enough, but in the minds of players and coaches, the program is close to a breakthrough.

“Do I feel like it's different than (after Alabama)?” Kelly asked. “Oh, I do. Absolutely. I left that game feeling like there was so much work to be done from the inside out, so much development, so much recruiting. This felt so much different, like we gave up four big plays that we characteristically don't give up.

“This is a totally different feeling. I feel like this football team is on the brink. Where, when I left (Alabama), it was, 'Boy, do we have a lot of work to do.'”

The common theme coming from the Irish players was that they didn't execute well enough to come away with the victory. Of course, Clemson had plenty to do with that, but the Irish made also made a number of unforced errors that helped widen the gap.

The mistakes began early in the first quarter, when quarterback Ian Book fumbled near midfield and the Tigers recovered, leading to a field goal. Later, Book added an interception, an ill-advised throw into triple coverage as he desperately tried to make a play.

Then, there were the big plays on defense. A Notre Dame defense that had made its opponents work for everything all season gave up touchdown plays of 42, 52 and 62 yards, turning what had been a close game for the first 15 minutes into a rout. Clemson wasn't overwhelming the Irish with long, sustained drives. It was four plays – those three and a one-handed touchdown catch for Tee Higgins at the end of the first half – that beat Notre Dame.

“It's kind of hard by looking at the score, but if you go back and look at the film you see from (Alabama) that there's a gap in the kind of athletes,” wide receiver Miles Boykin said. “Now I don't think that gap is there. I thought we played just as athletic as them and just as fast as them and it came down to execution, and we didn't execute today.”

“I think I'd be fine with losing if we played as good as we could have and that just didn't happen. Obviously there's frustration from that.”

That diagnosis of the state of Notre Dame's program relative to the best teams in the country was shared in the Clemson locker room. Coach Dabo Swinney was effusive in his praise for the Irish and likewise suggested the game turned on those big plays, especially Higgins' touchdown catch at the end of the first half.

“This is the best team we've played,” Swinney said. “(It's) the best front we've played. I think their secondary is really good. Those backs are really good, those big receivers they've got. I thought they were as complete a team as we've seen.

“Notre Dame is going to battle us every single time. That's just the way it was tonight. And Notre Dame's a heck of a football team.”

Losing because of a lack of execution and attention to the finer details will be a bitter pill to swallow for this Irish team. It spent the season priding itself on following “The Process,” making sure every box was checked before every game.

To not execute on the biggest stage leaves the team with eight months before the start of next season to think about what might have been.

“We're close,” Kelly said. “We're going to work our tails off to get there.”

dsinn@jg.net