Behind 412 yards of total offense from QB Trevor Lawrence, the Tigers cruised past Notre Dame, 34-10, for their sixth straight ACC championship game triumph, dealing the Fighting Irish their first loss. Lawrence threw touchdown passes of 67 and 33 yards and added a 34-yard rushing touchdown after missing the Nov. 7 meeting between the teams that Notre Dame won in double overtime, 47-40, in South Bend, Indiana.
Having sinned against 21st-century college football nature on the night of Nov. 7, an excellent Notre Dame team spent a chunk of Saturday in thundering atonement. It atoned by taking a 34-10 mauling from the Clemson dynasty, atoned with 263 yards and those 10 puny points compared with 518 and 47 the previous time, and kept atoning and atoning until it will have to rely upon a 13-member committee for forgiveness.
Of all the possibilities leading up to this delicious game of the year that doubled as the ACC championship game, comeuppance got little attention, a nod to how formidable No. 2 Notre Dame had become in its unbeaten ACC cameo. Yet comeuppance did roar in a great stifling that will leave many minds, green and otherwise, wondering through the night whether, come midday Sunday and the tolling of the bell of the final rankings, the College Football Playoff selection committee might dock the Fighting Irish (10-1) to No. 4 or to somewhere just beneath.
Those places just beneath can be such bummers, not that No. 3 Clemson (10-1) would know, having just won its sixth straight ACC title — the past four by 176-40 — to clinch its sixth consecutive playoff appearance. The Tigers are 79-6 since 2015, showing an unusual capacity to sort out whatever causes the very occasional insult.
One thing a powerhouse can do to fix a rare glitch is to have Trevor Lawrence on the field behind a face mask rather than on the sideline behind a cloth mask. From his coronavirus hiatus Nov. 7 in the Tigers’ 47-40 double-overtime loss to his regal presence of Dec. 19 in the Tigers’ romp, the difference shone even without coming as a slight to freshman D.J. Uiagalelei.
Uiagalelei, Lawrence’s five-star backup, qualified as terrific in South Bend, especially for someone aged 19 in making his second collegiate start. Lawrence, college football’s most prominent player, qualifies as something several streets beyond terrific in general, even for someone aged 21 in his 34th collegiate start.
He returned with a long paragraph of visual delights Saturday. The otherworldly combination of ease and zip on his passes shone in a 67-yard beauty deep to Amari Rodgers for a 7-3 lead in the first quarter, and in a step-up-in-the-pocket 33-yard blazer to E.J. Williams for a 14-3 lead in the second — with each receiver practically floating to the end zone: Rodgers to the middle, Williams to the left pylon. The slot machine of Lawrence’s total yards wound up on 412. He threw for 322 on 25-for-36 passing. He also ran fairly wild: 14 times for 90 yards and a streaming 34-yard touchdown for a 31-3 lead in the third quarter. He ran enough that he served sometimes as a 6-foot-6 decoy for running back Travis Etienne, who rushed 10 times for 124 yards and a 44-yard touchdown for a 24-3 lead just before halftime.
It all meant Clemson rushed for 219 yards, rather preferable to its 34 of Nov. 7.
For a spillover paragraph, he also blocked, Lawrence did, fending off safety DJ Brown to free Etienne on a third-and-seven running play just before Etienne’s 44-yard score. Even a boo-boo led to gold: Lawrence accidentally spiked a snap late in the first half to bring a fourth and one, then did some fine reading to hand to Etienne and send him to the left, through the defense and to the great beyond.
If Lawrence mattered, though, the Clemson defense of coordinator Brent Venables mattered just as much, with that curious knack for solving the calculus from the other side as the game proceeds. Notre Dame literally dried up.
A team averaging 37.7 points coming in saw its possessions go 46 yards, then 56, then 55, then minus-3, 16, minus-1, minus-11, 12 and 25 as things got settled with the fourth quarter as filler. Eventually it managed to go forward 75 yards in that fourth quarter, dressing the windows from 34-3 to 34-10.
Ian Book, a senior quarterback with a sterling record, seemed to have ample options on the first two marches — to a 51-yard field goal and a 24-yard missed field goal that glanced ghoulishly off the right upright. Then they all seemed to go away, as if edited out of the scenery.
Finally, midway through the third quarter, he had a play where he roamed the field all the way to the right and then all the way to the left, looking and looking, until finding nothing out there and exiting out of bounds for a loss of two yards after a run of about 50.
His team had gone disfigured right when it seemed ready to go big-time, right after its accomplished coach, Brian Kelly, had spoken with a stunning myopia Friday of declining a Rose Bowl bid if his players’ parents weren’t allowed to attend under pandemic regulations. Suddenly, the team left in the wreckage of atonement by Clemson looked like it ought to accept whatever it might get.