In 238 seconds, Clemson dropped Notre Dame and flexed on college football – The Washington Post

It was a blip of just 238 seconds from a season that began in August and now will extend into January. In that slice of time, Clemson’s football team ran 12 plays. They covered 165 yards and showed what football coaches spend hours in film rooms and practice sessions trying to mine from their players: precision, athleticism, discipline, attention to detail.

In those 238 seconds — a hair under four minutes — Clemson closed out Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl, which served as the first College Football Playoff semifinal, Saturday evening at AT&T Stadium. Yeah, they spanned two drives at the end of the first half, and sure, the huge blocks of Fighting Irish fans who filled more than half the stadium could have discussed, at halftime, ways to come back. Watch both marching bands go through their routines, have a beverage, and you could maybe figure out a way for the Irish to rally.

But not if you were being real and assessing why Clemson is in the playoff for the fourth straight year. That timespan was the foundation of Clemson’s 30-3 mauling of the Irish. It’s worth reliving because it represents what the Tigers have become and what they can be at any moment. On Saturday, those seconds contained two drives that transformed a competitive-if-unattractive contest into a beatdown. They showed the potential that’s possible against any opponent, including a week from Monday in the national championship game, in which Clemson will play for the third time in four years.

What Clemson has is explosiveness and depth at every position, a claim Notre Dame cannot quite make. Where to start? Perhaps with quarterback Trevor Lawrence — who, it’s worth reminding yourself when you consider what just played out, is a true freshman who just turned 19.

Lawrence’s work on the day: 27 completions of 39 passes for 327 yards and three touchdowns. But his work on those two drives is what buckled Notre Dame. With the Irish facing a manageable 9-3 deficit, Lawrence got the ball with just less than five minutes remaining in the first half and 85 yards to go for a touchdown. By the time the Irish figured out what was happening, Lawrence had dissected a secondary that was without key cornerback Julian Love — out temporarily with an injury — and turned a third-and-14 trouble spot into a 42-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Justyn Ross.

About Ross: Three Tigers caught more balls than he did this season. But he is — and hide your eyes, fans of opposing ACC teams — another true freshman. More than that: He’s a true freshman from Alabama, a true measure of how deep and enduring Clemson’s pull has become. More than that, even: Saturday, he caught Lawrence’s first touchdown pass of the day — a 52-yarder — and then the beautiful ball Lawrence delivered on this seam route for those 42 yards and a 16-3 lead. His coming-out party finished with six catches for 148 yards. Deal with that, Alabama or Oklahoma — or anybody in the country.

That would have been enough for the Tigers to establish momentum, but under Coach Dabo Swinney, Clemson has developed such an alpha personality that if the door’s open a crack, the Tigers will blast through it with a steam shovel. Their average margin of victory this season was nearly 32 points, and that didn’t happen because Swinney and his staff eased into halftimes by taking a knee.

Rather, when Notre Dame failed to convert on its next possession, Clemson called a timeout. Lawrence got the ball back at his own 20 with 48 seconds left. One game-changer: a 32-yard completion to veteran Hunter Renfrow, whose eligibility may someday actually expire. That killer became worse for Notre Dame when senior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery obviously and stupidly roughed Lawrence.

All that was left to suck the suspense from Texas and have the Tigers thinking to next week in California, where the title game will be held in Santa Clara, was Lawrence’s final throw of the half. On this one, from 19 yards out, he got help from receiver Tee Higgins, who concentrated on a tipped ball and hauled it in as he stumbled out of the back of the end zone.

Another salient fact: Higgins, Clemson’s leading receiver, is a sophomore.

These guys aren’t going away. On those two drives that changed the game, Lawrence completed 7 of 8 throws for 125 yards and the two scores.

The pregame story line from Texas centered on the loss of massive defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who was suspended due to a positive test for ostarine, a banned muscle-growth supplement. So a (seemingly) intriguing question arose: Would Lawrence’s absence mean the Irish would be able to bust senior running back Dexter Williams up the middle?

The answer: Um, no. The problem for Notre Dame is that Lawrence’s suspension didn’t magically take defensive end Clelin Ferrell and defensive tackle Christian Wilkins out of action, too. Sure, Lawrence is a load at 350 pounds. But Albert Huggins, who started in his stead, is a senior who’s hardly a fragile flower at 315 pounds.

Williams’s total output on the day: 16 carries, 54 yards. The Tigers, they swallowed him whole.

And so the second half — particularly after Irish quarterback Ian Book threw his only interception of the day, near the end of the third quarter — devolved into a debate that has marred the five years of the College Football Playoff’s existence: Should the committee take the team with the best résumé — and Notre Dame, with a spotless 12-0 record that included wins over Michigan, Northwestern, Syracuse and Southern Cal, had a nice résumé — over a team that was playing better ball late in the year.

That team, in this case, would be Georgia — which lost at LSU, mysteriously, and to Alabama in the SEC championship game, understandably. Would the Bulldogs have given Clemson a better game Saturday evening? Possibly. Maybe even probably.

But that debate shouldn’t matter much. Look at those 238 seconds. Consider all the characters who impacted the outcome in that time — Lawrence, Ross, Higgins and the rest. Throw in a bottomless pit of defensive talent, particularly up front.

What Clemson is: a national power that is now a national program, recruiting whatever players it wants from wherever they’re raised. And every year, it is a threat to win the national championship. Watch the end of the first half Saturday, and try to think otherwise.

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