CLEMSON, S.C. -- They don’t mind old-school football in these parts.
In fact, it was 34 years ago that Clemson won a national championship with the epitome of old-school football.
Even ugly football is acceptable, which is fitting, given the frightful weather Saturday night in Memorial Stadium. The wind, rain and a nasty case of the dropsies took their toll on Notre Dame. But the Clemson defense took an even heavier toll on the Irish, at least for much of the game, in a 24-22 statement win for the Tigers that looks even better when you consider the carnage that took place in the top 10 this week.
Clemson took care of No. 6 Notre Dame by itself. Also going down Saturday were No. 3 Ole Miss, No. 7 UCLA and No. 8 Georgia, and that doesn’t even count No. 1 Ohio State and No. 2 Michigan State being pushed to the brink by teams that aren’t going to be mistaken for powerhouses anytime soon.
Where does that leave Clemson?
We’ll let Shaq Lawson, the Tigers’ disrupter du jour on defense, answer that.
“That we can play with anybody in the country, and that we can beat anybody in the country,” said Lawson, who had 3.5 of the Tigers’ nine tackles for loss. “Everybody’s still going to doubt us, but that’s OK. We’re used to that. We don’t care if anybody believes in us. We believe in us. We believe in Clemson, and that’s good enough.”
The question reverberating around the college football world late Saturday night after Clemson (4-0) held off a frantic, fourth-quarter rally by Notre Dame was one that’s sure to pick up steam over the next few weeks.
Is this Clemson team good enough to make the College Football Playoff?
Good luck getting anybody inside the Clemson locker room to touch that one. After all, as senior linebacker B.J. Goodson so sensibly noted, “It’s only Week 5.”
But it’s hard not to like Clemson’s path to a potential spot in the playoff in an ACC that looks even more top-heavy than normal. Sure, there’s always Florida State, but the Seminoles have been far from dominant this season, and they have to come to Clemson on Nov. 7.
The Tigers will be favored in every game they play the rest of the way, which is the last thing Clemson coach Dabo Swinney wants. Plus, there could be a North Carolina State or a South Carolina lurking around the corner. Let’s not pretend the rap of Clemson suffering an inexplicable loss doesn’t still exist in some quarters. There’s even a name for it that boils the blood of Clemson fans everywhere.
You know, that whole Clemsoning thing.
Maybe it’s time, though, that we put that moniker to rest, especially given that these days, the Tigers are finding more ways to win games against marquee opponents than ways to lose to inferior opponents.
Let’s be honest. Clemson has as many impressive victories as anybody in the country the past few years. Among the Tigers' conquests: Oklahoma, Ohio State, LSU … and now Notre Dame.
“We’re just trying to prove people wrong,” Clemson junior linebacker Ben Boulware said. “That gives us a lot of motivation. Every one of these big games, we’re not picked to win, and it kind of pisses us off. … We’re still going to come into work every day and don’t care who the opponent is. It’s a faceless, nameless opponent. It’s preparation you have to have for these big games, not changing anything.”
Notre Dame (4-1) looked like it was going to go quietly into the rainy Clemson night after falling behind 24-9 with 10:56 to play. But sophomore quarterback DeShone Kizer passed for 202 of his 321 yards in the fourth quarter and brought the Irish back. His 1-yard touchdown pass to Torii Hunter with seven seconds left pulled Notre Dame within two. Coach Brian Kelly, who opted to go for two points and failed on the Irish’s first touchdown of the fourth quarter, had Kizer keep it on this two-point attempt. The Tigers’ Carlos Watkins and Kevin Dodd blew up the play before it ever had a chance.
Notre Dame couldn’t budge the Clemson defense for three quarters, and the Irish were also hurt by four turnovers and a litany of dropped passes. But the complexion of the game turned in the final quarter.
“I wish it would have been a lot easier in that fourth quarter,” said Clemson defensive coordinator Brent Venables, who has managed to reload, despite losing seven players off last year’s defense to current NFL active rosters.
“We got lucky a few times too," he said. "They say ‘luck of the Irish.’ Well, it was ‘luck of the paw’ tonight. They dropped some that hit them in the hands. That’s part of the game too. We slipped off some tackles because it was so wet. You have to have some things go your way once in a while.”
Lawson said the Tigers had played too well defensively to let the fourth quarter sink them, and he kept reminding himself of something that has been ingrained in him since he first stepped foot onto a football field.
“It’s what they said back in the old days -- that defense wins championships,” Lawson said. “That’s stuck with me since I was 8 years old playing rec ball, and I still believe in that to this day. It’s great to get a stop and a win.”
There will be others the Tigers will have to make along the way if they’re going to crash the playoff party come January. Although the passing game has been shaky the past two outings (only 97 passing yards against Notre Dame), this is a program that has proven it can win on any stage, even one that’s water-logged.
The biggest might be yet to come.