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Clemson Upsets Irish; Dabo Winningest Coach

Clemson’s season has done anything but live up to the motto “Best is the Standard.” They had lost 2 in a row coming into Saturday’s battle with former Wake Forest QB Sam Hartman and the 15th (CFP)/12th (AP)-ranked Notre Dame Fighting Irish. The Tigers have been marred by turnovers, seemingly especially in the red zone, with 10 fumbles lost – one off from the national leader following last week (Nebraska). There have also been a couple of moments where Cade Klubnik’s inexperience as a starter have led him to make some costly bad decisions. In total, the Tigers had lost 4 of their first 8 games this season, falling well short of the expectations many set for this program. Expectations that, without question, are based on Dabo’s “best is the standard” mantra.


Clemson fans have been understandably frustrated, and they are not the only ones, as earlier this week, it all came to a head when a fan, now infamously known as “Tyler from Spartanburg” called into Dabo’s weekly radio show and made his displeasure known. Swinney gave him a response, that without reading too much into it, was nothing short of a release of frustrations and the pressure to win that have been building up all season.


In short, Clemson needed a win on Saturday and Dabo needed to make a statement, not necessarily to quiet his detractors, but to bring some peace and stability to both himself and the program. Opposition aside, neither would come easily.


Clemson entered the game down star running back Will Shipley, who was banged up in the 24-17 loss at NC State last week. They also were likely going to be down cornerback Sheridan Jones and defensive end Justin Mascoll. Their hopes of success would lean heavily on their offensive line paving the way for Phil Mafah, who would be RB1 in the absence of Shipley, and on Cade Klubnik eliminating costly mistakes and red zone turnovers.


The Tigers found themselves falling behind the 8 ball early. They won the toss and deferred to the 2nd half, getting the Irish the ball to start the game. The opening kickoff was fair-caught inside the 5, making for an automatic touchback to set Notre Dame up at their own 25. Then, on the very first play from scrimmage, ND tailback Audric Estime took a handoff and hurdled over 2 Clemson defenders for a big gainer to the Irish 49. After a false start, Estime once again picked up a huge chunk of yards to get the Irish down to the Clemson 31. But, in the end, this drive would end up being the first example of what in the end, was the storyline and difference in the game.


The drive stalled at the Tigers’ 35 yardline, forcing Notre Dame to settle for a 42 yard fieldgoal to take the early 3-0 lead, capping the 7 play, 50-yard drive.


After the 2 sides traded possessions, Clemson broke through to seize the lead with 6:57 to play in the 1st quarter on a 41 yard TD run by Phil Mafah, who took a handoff on the first (and only) play of the drive to the left and juked a defender to break loose down the sideline.


Both sides once again traded 3 and outs when Notre Dame made a crucial mistake. Clemson punted it away with just over 4 and a half minutes remaining in the opening stanza, but the high and wobbly punt was muffed by the Notre Dame return man and recovered by Clemson’s Philip Florenzo at the Irish 22 yardline. The series would ultimately result in having to settle for a Jonathn Weitz 21 yard fieldgoal that extended the lead to 10-3 with 2:08 to go in the 1st.


The storyline continued on Notre Dame’s ensuing series, which carried over into the 2nd quarter and was highlighted by a long run by Sam Hartman that set the Irish up at the Tigers’ 25. Once again, Clemson’s defense stood up strong in the redzone as Xavier Thomas deflected a pass on 3rd and 3 from the Clemson 12, forcing the Irish to once again have to settle for a short fieldgoal, this time from 29 yards away to cut the deficit to 10-6.


In total, Notre Dame made 3 trips to the redzone in the 1st half, and all three ended in a fieldgoal. On the flipside, Clemson got inside the Irish 20 three times, scoring TD on 2 of them. But, the real key play from the first half was the biggest mistake Sam Hartman made all game.


Trailing 17-6 with 8 and a half minutes to play in the 2nd quarter, Hartman threw towards the sideline right into the pathway of Jeremiah Trotter Jr, who stepped in front of it and took it all the way to the house for a pick 6. That pick 6 may very well have ended up being the difference in the ballgame.


After taking a 24-9 lead to the half, Clemson had to be feeling like they may finally be putting together a game where they avoided the turnover woes and mistakes that had plagued them this season. But, that notion quickly died on their first possession of the 3rd quarter. Klubnik had a pass deflected and intercepted by Notre Dame Junior Safety Xavier Watts, who returned it all the way to the Clemson 2 yardline, setting up Notre Dame’s first red zone TD of the day on the next play, when Audric Estime bulldozed through a tackle to punch it in, cutting the Clemson lead to just 8 with 13:57 to play in the 3rd quarter.


Klubnik and company responded well after the turnover, something they haven’t always done this season, especially when those turnovers have led to points for the opposition, marching 75 yards in 11 plays and striking back with a 1 yard TD run by Phil Mafah to make it a 2 score game once again. But, the Irish struck right back with a 4 play, 74 yard drive of their own, scoring on a 26 yard house call by Sam Hartman, making it 31-23 with 6:05 to play in the 3rd.


That would end up being the final score, but there was still a lot that happened in between the score and the final horn that played a role in the final margin, particularly on the defensive and special teams sides of the ball. Late in the 4th quarter, Clemson flipped the field by Cade Klubnik running what Dabo jokingly referred to as the “PPO” – Punt/Pass Option. It was a designed play that has been in the book a while, but has not been utilized prior to today. In essence, the play is to line up like you are going for it, if a receiver comes open when the QB rolls out, throw it. If not, punt. Cade laid a beautiful punt that was downed at the Notre Dame 4, flipping the field for good.


Clemson continued to get the ball at ar near midfield after forcing 3 and outs on 3 of Notre Dame’s last 5 possessions. The two that didn’t end in a punt? An interception and a turnover on downs, the ladder of which sealed the game.


Despite the fact the Irish forced the Tigers to punt just as many times as they did, Clemson played their own version of “Beamer Ball”. Punter Aiden Swanson pinned ND inside their own 10 twice, and inside the 15 once.


The defense and special teams were phenomenal. Jeremiah Trotter in particular, was everywhere all day with a pick 6, 11 total tackles, 7 of which were solo, 2 sacks, and 2.5 tackles for a loss. But, a lot of credit is due to the Clemson offensive line, Phil Mafah, and Cade Klubnik.


Mafah ran for 186 yards on 36 carries with a pair of touchdowns while Klubnik went 50% through the air (13-26) with 109 yards and a TD. His lone blemish was the pick 6.


“He’s gonna be a great one. He’s growing. He’s getting better. And this was a big win for him. He probably took 1 sack he shouldn’t have. But, he is tough. He is a grinder. He didn’t practice Monday or Tuesday. He was battling an injury. He didn’t get meaningful reps till Wednesday. This was a huge win for him and it was cool to get to celebrate it with him”, said Dabo regarding Klubnik’s performance.


Cade was not the only one who played this week despite battling injury early on. Swinney revealed that Tyler Brown did not practice at all this week and still played, logging a 9 yard TD reception on his lone catch of the day.


All in all, Dabo had this to say about his team’s effort that led to him becoming Clemson’s all-time winningest coach (surpassing Frank Howard with 166).


“It’s been a tough year and we haven’t had a lot go our way. But, these guys have continued to battle and I think it says a lot about our coaches, staff, and our guys. We had the least amount of guys available this week we have had all year. We ran that football as well as we have run it in a while. Had some great blocking along the perimeter. We haven’t had a lot go our way this year, but these guys haven’t lost a fight. I saw it last week when we were down 24-7. We came back. I told them if they bring that fight every week, they’ll always have a chance.”


“Momentum in conference (play) is a big thing. A win like this is huge. Especially with all that was out. We haven’t had our 2 best receivers all year {Antonio Williams and  and we keep finding ways. This is a good football team. It doesn’t get easier. Georgia Tech is playing good football. UNC is a good team. It’s always tough to play in Columbia. It doesn’t get any easier. It’s like playoff football for us every week”, Swinney added.


The momentum of Saturday’s win definitely cannot be understated. The Tigers, who play extremely well at home, will finish the regular season with 3 of their remaining 4 games within the friendly confines of Death Valley. They still have a chance, especially if they continue to play as well as they did today, to finish the season 8-4 and make a decent bowl game. Which is sure to not only relieve the strain, frustration, and pressure on Dabo and the guys, but on the “Tylers” of the orange and purple-clad fandom as well.


Clemson made a statement. The question is how they will back that statement up over these final 4 weeks

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