The plan was simple, actually.
It made all the sense in the world when University of Notre Dame football coach Brian Kelly suggested consistently to his players over the last month that the Cotton Bowl assignment in the 2018 College Football Playoff semifinals would require every player’s best effort of the season.
That was only logical when the opponent definitively was the best team the Irish played all season — second-ranked and unbeaten Clemson, the champion of the Atlantic Coast Conference making its fourth straight CFP appearance.
Making Kelly’s hopes, dreams and expectations come to fruition proved far more challenging for the Irish on the field of AT&T Stadium.
After hanging with the Tigers for a period, the Irish watched as Clemson (now 14-0) parlayed maybe the most productive single quarter of passing football the CFP has witnessed into an eventual 30-3 triumph to claim a spot in the CFP title game against Alabama (14-0), another unbeaten team.
In a game of this magnitude, any team hoping to win has to make plays — and the Irish (12-1) didn’t make nearly enough of them.
“All season somebody in this room stepped up and had to make plays for us — offensively, defensively, special teams,” Kelly said to his squad 10 minutes before kickoff. “We got to this point and we decided we wanted more and we kept doing that week after week.
“Now we’re in the playoffs and it’s not about one guy making plays, it has to be collective as a group. Everybody plays their best today, it’s not on one guy. Everybody competes at the highest level.
“Let me underline that for you. We are running through the whistle on everything we do for four quarters. We worked to get to this point, so we have the mental toughness collectively to play together with that energy every single play. We give them no inch. There is no room for them to breathe today.
“I want to feel that on the sideline. That has to be what happens today. That is a strong conviction. Now go out and let it go.
“I want that gold flying off that helmet today. Let’s play Notre Dame football.”
Maybe the opening two offensive series presaged the day for the Irish. In the first 190 seconds Notre Dame fumbled twice (after doing that only eight times in the regular season), lost one of those (after only three lost fumbles in the first 12 games), committed a false start penalty and dropped a routine third-down pass that should have turned into a first down.
Neither quarterback enjoyed much breathing room in the first period as the two defenses held sway. The two teams traded field goals, and by the end of the initial 15 minutes Notre Dame had twice as many first downs as the Tigers and had rolled up 40 more total yards.
Then it all went south for the Irish.
If anyone from Notre Dame thought there was a possibility the moment might be too big for Clemson freshman signal-caller Trevor Lawrence, that option went out the window in the second period.
Here is what Lawrence did in the second quarter alone: 15 pass attempts, 13 completions, 229 passing yards, three touchdown passes.
The Irish defense all year over a dozen games had allowed only four pass plays of 35 yards or longer. But in that second period alone, Lawrence connected on throws for 52, 42, 34, 32, 19 and 16 yards.
Notre Dame, down 16-3, took over at its own 25 with 1:44 on the first-half clock, thinking a score could make it a one-possession football game. But the Irish punted after four plays — and Clemson responded by driving 80 yards on four plays in 46 seconds. Lawrence’s three TD passes in the period covered 113 combined yards.
A half-hour before kickoff Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long had stressed to his players, “This is what you’ve got to to do in championship ballgames.”
Little did he know then how difficult it would actually be to do those things.
It was 23-3 at intermission and the Irish were on their heels.
Irish senior captain Drue Tranquill delivered some impassioned remarks to his teammates just as the Notre Dame squad arrived in the locker room:
“We’ve got to stay together. Let’s do this thing. Make plays.”
Kelly followed that up 10 minutes later with his own thoughts:
“That’s not how we play. That wasn’t an attention to detail. Coaching and playing has got to be better. That is not us.
“You think that’s the story we’re going to write that first half? We’re going to go through this whole year and that’s the story we’re going to leave? We’re going to write the right story the second half. You know and I know that’s not the team we are.
“For whatever reason it happened. We can’t take it back. But we sure as heck can leave on this field the team that has been built this whole year. I would not be in front of you unless I believed we could win this football game.
“I’m mad. We dug ourselves a hole and we’re going to dig ourselves out of it. Don’t come out unless you believe you can win.
“We’ve got to be playmakers on offense — we’re too darn good to score three points on offense.
“Let’s be the better team in the second half. We’re not leaving here unless we write this the right way.”
The Irish fought gamely to start the second half, putting together a 50-yard drive (that ended in a punt) to begin the third period. Notre Dame managed only 63 net yards (23 plays) the rest of the game.
After admirably holding sophomore Clemson star running back Travis Etienne to an unremarkable 39 combined yards on his first 11 carries, the dam broke. Etienne bolted through the left side of his line and went 62 yards down the Clemson sideline for the only points of the second half to make it 30-3 with two minutes to go in the third quarter.
A talented Clemson defense forced Notre Dame 17 times into third-down challenges — cand only five times did the Irish convert. Quarterback Ian Book, who never really achieved a comfort zone all day, finished six-of-12 passing (43 yards, one interception) on those third downs and was sacked six times overall (Clemson had five quarterback hurries). He ran the ball 17 times (more than any other player on either roster), but many of those came when there was nowhere else to go with the football.
On a day when consistent playmaking was required, the guys in orange made most all of those.
As Kelly noted later, “We’ve got to make more plays on this stage.”
Notre Dame’s three points scored, 248 offensive yards and 17 first downs all represented season lows. The Irish passing-yard number (160) was more than 100 yards less than in any other game in 2018. Clemson’s 538 total yards represented 95 more than any other Notre Dame opponent posted this year. Both Alohi Gilman (18) and Te’von Coney (16) broke the CFP single-game tackle mark, yet that represented small consolation.
The final statistics didn’t list official replay review results, but it would be accurate to assert that every time one of those came up at a key point in the game, it went Clemson’s way.
“We didn’t play well enough and we didn’t coach well enough,” Kelly allowed to his team after it ended. “And it’s pretty clear to break this down — we gave up four big plays on defense and how many times has that happened this year? It doesn’t happen, right?
“We scored three points (fewest in Notre Dame bowl history) on offense. How are you going to win scoring three points on offense? You cannot win football games if you give up big plays and you score three points. That’s why we are in the losers’ locker room.
“That’s behind us, so where are we now? I want to win this national championship. To those seniors, I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done to get this program to the brink of a championship. There are not enough thank-yous for all of you who played in your last game.
“It’s now up to those with eligibility remaining to want to be part of the group that takes Notre Dame to a national championship. If you were here today, tell me that that cannot happen. We did not get it today, but our seniors moved it that far. All we’re thinking about is getting back to this game, winning this game and winning the next game. That’s the bar.
“We know why we lost the game, but we know where we’re going to go. We are laying down the ground rules moving forward.
“I love you all. The journey this year was incredible – especially when I think about the men behind that jersey. The class and character are second to none.
“Incredibly, it came to an end tonight, but it’s just beginning because our mission is to win a national championship. We’re gonna take it from here. We will be more committed to get back to this point and finishing the deal.”
Noted Book, “We didn’t need any super-human efforts today. We just needed to do what we did all season.
“This is playoff football. This is what you’re going to get.”
Cornerback Julian Love, who missed most of the first half with a head injury, sounded a futuristic cord:
“There’s more to come next year. You’ll see us back here.”
Added Kelly, “Losing gives you a perspective. But our guys saw they could win a game like this.”
Fans at AT&T Stadium were treated on multiple occasions Saturday to 40-year-old highlights of the Irish comeback win over Houston in the frigid conditions of the 1979 Cotton Bowl — including a live, in-game sideline interview with Kris Haines who caught the winning TD pass that day from Joe Montana.
This time all the chicken soup in the world would not be enough.
John Heisler, senior associate athletics director at the University of Notre Dame, has been part of the Fighting Irish athletics communications team since 1978. A South Bend, Indiana, native, he is a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and a member of the College Sports Information Directors of America Hall of Fame. He is the author, co-author or editor of 12 books (one a New York Times bestseller) and editor of the award-winning “Strong of Heart” series.