The Journal Gazette
Sunday, November 08, 2020 2:20 am

Notre Dame topples Clemson, earns biggest win since '93

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

SOUTH BEND – Don't try to tell Notre Dame that tonight's 47-40 double-overtime victory over No. 1 Clemson mattered for the "trajectory of the program" or any other such big-picture reason.

Sure, Notre Dame celebrated the win to the fullest extent possible, but the Irish profess to believe all the talk about narratives and talent gaps and the rest is just media fodder.

"It feels good," linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said of the victory. "But I don't think it's changed the program in any way. I think we go back tomorrow and get to work on Boston College. As far as tonight, it was a great victory, but we told the guys right after, we have some other big games to focus on. 

"Within the team, we're heading back to the drawing board and focusing on the next game ahead of us."

That's a good mindset for the players to have. It's the one that coach Brian Kelly wants and the one he's preached all season as this game loomed on the horizon. There are four games left on the regular-season schedule and the Irish can't afford a letdown.

But from a big-picture perspective, that mindset is wrong. This game did matter for the long-term prospects of the program. It does change the narrative around the Irish. No longer are they a team that has piled up wins in recent years without truly grabbing a signature triumph. Now, they're a program that has gone 30-3 since the start of 2018 and is one of the truly elite teams in the country. This victory puts them in a tier that previously had only included Clemson, Alabama, Ohio State and maybe Georgia. Those are the best of the best in college football in 2020 and now it's impossible to deny that the Irish are among those programs.

It's possible that a narrative – there's that word again – might congeal in the coming days that proclaims this game doesn't count as a "big win" because Clemson did not have quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the Heisman Trophy favorite, under center. That narrative is wrong, too. Yes, Lawrence was out because he tested positive for COVID-19 last week. That doesn't mean that Notre Dame wasn't facing a superstar at quarterback.

D.J. Uiagalelei, a true freshman, went 29 of 44 for 439 yards and three total touchdowns and made some otherworldly throws in big moments. Maybe Lawrence could have done better – he is the best college quarterback since Andrew Luck, after all – but that much better that it would've swung the game? I'm skeptical.

"D.J.'s a special player," Kelly said. "Trevor Lawrence is a special player too. Boy, I'd like to have (Clemson coach) Dabo (Swinney)'s problems, with those two guys. (Uiagalelei) is outstanding. His ability to throw the football today was pretty special. If we played them again, we would have to do some things differently because he is so explosive."

And Notre Dame might well get a chance to play Clemson again this season, though it probably wouldn't be with Uiagalelei at quarterback. If the rest of the season goes chalk – a big if in this wacky college football season – the Irish and Tigers would meet a second time at the ACC Championship Game in Charlotte, North Carolina, on Dec. 19. By then, Lawrence will almost certainly be back and the Irish will have to prove that tonight's win was no fluke (hint: it was not). Notre Dame plans to be ready.

"I think it's very likely (we'll see Clemson again)," Owusu-Koramoah said. "Clemson's a great team. They'll get Trevor back, the team is really good, they have a lot of guys, a lot of assets. I think it's most likely we'll see them again and I'm pretty sure the whole world thinks we'll see them again. It'll be a great experience to see them again, as well."

Before moving on to a potential future matchup, Notre Dame can look back at this victory and all the heroes that made it possible: Ian Book playing the best game of his career, the offensive line opening up big holes for Kyren Williams and Williams taking advantage for 140 yards and three touchdowns, Owusu-Koramoah forcing two fumbles that led to 10 Irish points and flying around everywhere, the defensive line stuffing superstar running back Travis Etienne over and over again, Avery Davis making two huge catches on the game-tying Irish touchdown drive and showing why he stayed at Notre Dame despite switching positions three times, Javon McKinley catching five passes for 102 yards. The list goes on and on and they're all a part of Irish lore now because of this win.

There's plenty of season left and the Irish have bigger goals than a regular-season victory, but don't let that take away from how momentous this game was. For the first time since beating Florida State in 1993, the No. 1 team in the country fell to Notre Dame. That's worth celebrating. It might even change the narrative.

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