SOUTH BEND – It's remarkable how loud a stadium filled to only 15% capacity can sound at full throat. When Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams burst through the left side of the line on Notre Dame's first official play from scrimmage and raced 65 yards for a touchdown, Notre Dame Stadium absolutely exploded, making it sound as though the stadium was packed.
Notre Dame has professed all week that it's confident it can play with No. 1 Clemson, but seeing Williams go all the way for the touchdown and a 7-0 Irish lead had to give the home team a little extra boost as its belief in itself was validated early. It was the type of start the Irish absolutely needed and they got it. One play into the game, they had more points than they did all night against the Tigers in the 2018 Cotton Bowl, a 30-3 loss.
The rest of the first half saw the Notre Dame offensive line prove that the hole it opened on that first play was not a fluke. This has been one of the best O-lines in the country this season and it pushed Clemson around on a regular basis in the first half. Williams ran for 102 yards on 10 carries, while Chris Tyree also broke a 15-yard run in the red zone with the help of big crease in the middle of the front. Maybe even more significant, the Irish offensive front has given quarterback Ian Book plenty of time to throw. It hasn't been quite as good in pass-blocking this year, but it kept Book clean in the first half and allowed him to take some shots down the field. Notre Dame converted three straight third-and-medium/longs with pass plays during one stretch and Book had time to let the play develop on all three.
As well as the offensive line has played, however, much of the credit has to go to Book, as well – the fifth-year senior had arguably the best quarter of his career in the first period against Clemson. He climbed the pocket as well as I've ever seen him, kept his eyes down the field and looked supremely calm even on the rare occasions Clemson put some pressure on him. He finished the first half 9 for 14 for 101 yards and would have had a touchdown pass if not for a drop at the 1-yard line by tight end Michael Mayer. (Mayer actually had an extremely difficult first half, playing a like a freshman for the only time this season. Not only did he drop the sure touchdown, he committed a false start penalty just before a fourth-and-1 that forced Notre Dame to settle for a field goal.)
The story on defense, however, was much more mixed. On the plus side, Notre Dame's defensive front has done an admirable job of bottling up running back Travis Etienne, the ACC's all-time leading rusher. Etienne had one run of 10 yards to open the game, but after that he had negative-4 yards on his next eight carries. In addition, Etienne dropped a pitch that ended up in the hands of linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, who returned it for a touchdown, arguably the biggest play of the first half outside of Williams' scoring run. Even if Etienne hadn't bobbled the pitch, though, Owusu-Koramoah would have been there to drop him for a 5-yard loss.
Where Notre Dame has struggled is in the passing game. Clemson true freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei has done his best Trevor Lawrence impression, looking almost as poised as he did in his first start against Boston College last week. He showed off his uber-elite arm talent in the first quarter with a 53-yard seed to Cornell Powell for a touchdown (TaRiq Bracy was burned on the play) and Clemson's coaching staff has done a good job of giving him simple throws to make. He did miss badly behind the receiver on one wide-open post route and got spooked by a Bo Bauer blitz on third down in the red zone, throwing wildly incomplete. So far, however, he's been about as good as you can ask for from a true freshman, going 11 for 17 for 220 yards and a touchdown. Notre Dame has its hands full tonight even without Lawrence.
So where do things stand? Notre Dame has not been intimidated by the moment and has done what it needs to do: stop Etienne, take care of the ball on offense and get some big momentum-swinging plays. This game is far from over, but the Irish have been the better team more often than not in the first half. If Uiagalelei gets hot in the second half, Clemson can score in a hurry, so the Irish can't afford to sit on the lead or get conservative in their play-calling. But this one's there for the taking. Thirty minutes to play.