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Lawrence Fuels Clemson’s Run to Title Game

By Dave Holcomb
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Trevor Lawrence finished 27 of 39, passing for 327 yards with the three scores.

Coming into its showdown with Notre Dame in the Cotton Bowl Classic, Clemson owned a 63-7 record during the playoff era. If not for Alabama, the Tigers would be considered the college football dynasty of this decade.

However, there was still a small contingency coming into the postseason arguing Clemson’s 2018 perfect record was a mirage because the Tigers benefitted from facing a feeble ACC.

There’s little doubt the ACC was weaker this year, but after Saturday, there are no more Clemson skeptics. The Tigers silenced their critics, thumping the Fighting Irish, 30-3, in the Cotton Bowl Classic.

Just about every aspect of the Clemson football program was on display Saturday. That’s what happens in a 27-point victory. As he has been so often this year, though, freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence stood out in a game where the Tigers were nearly flawless.

Notre Dame appeared to make the freshman feel a bit uncomfortable in the first 15 minutes, but Lawrence shined after that, throwing for three touchdowns in the second quarter alone.

Lawrence finished 27 of 39, passing for 327 yards with the three scores. Clemson ended the game with 211 rushing yards as well, but much of that came with the game well in hand during the second half. The Tigers rushed for only 42 yards in the first half.

That makes Lawrence’s second-quarter performance even more impressive. The potent Clemson rushing attack didn’t help him at all in that second quarter, and yet, the Tigers pulled away before halftime.

The freshman quarterback did get plenty of help from his wide receivers. Justyn Ross broke several tackles on both of his long touchdown catches, and Tee Higgins hauled in an absolutely beautiful one-handed catch for a score.

Ross led the Tigers with six receptions and 148 yards to go with his two touchdowns. Higgins caught four passes for 53 yards and the score.

Higgins’ touchdown came with two seconds remaining in the first half. If Higgins doesn’t make his terrific catch, Notre Dame likely heads into the locker room only down two scores. Instead, the Fighting Irish looked deflated, having fallen behind by 20, which will go down as their biggest halftime deficit of the season.

Lawrence already validated coach Dabo Swinney’s decision to move away from Kelly Bryant and make a quarterback change by throwing for 8.0 yards per attempt, 24 touchdowns and just four interceptions during the regular season, but Lawrence completely confirmed the switch behind center was the correct decision with his three second-quarter touchdowns.

When the running game disappeared against Alabama in the semifinals last season, Bryant’s abilities whittled under pressure. He couldn’t push the ball downfield at all, and it resulted in a very disappointing loss for the top-seeded Tigers.

Not that this Notre Dame defense is Alabama, but the Fighting Irish allowed one passing touchdown of more than 20 yards during the regular season. Lawrence had two such touchdown tosses in the second quarter.

With how well the Clemson defense played Saturday, Lawrence only needed one of his three touchdown passes to win. Even without defensive lineman Dexter Lawrence, who sat out amid a PED suspension, the Tigers held the Fighting Irish to 248 offensive yards, including 88 rushing yards.

It was the 10th time this season Clemson held an opponent below 300 total yards and the seventh occasion the Tigers didn’t allow the opposition to hit the century mark in rushing.

In the last regular season game, the Clemson secondary played horribly. South Carolina ripped apart the Tigers pass defense, throwing for 510 yards. Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book would have no such luck, as he threw for 160 yards with an interception on 34 attempts.

The biggest difference was in the Clemson defensive backfield. The Tigers’ coverage was lights out, so even when the defensive line didn’t get pressure on Book, which was rare Saturday night, Notre Dame was unable to generate anything through the air.

Nothing else went right for the Irish either, who set a new dubious program record for fewest points scored in a bowl game. Three important replays all didn’t go Notre Dame’s way in the first half, including Higgins’ one-handed grab in the corner of the end zone.

While all three calls were correct -- the officials didn’t rob the Irish of anything -- the poor misfortune just summarized Notre Dame’s night. Clemson fumbled a kickoff return during the first quarter, but the tip of the ball hit out of bounds just before Notre Dame recovered the loose ball. Replay overturned that Irish recovery.

Again, it was the correct ruling, but a different call like that early on with the game in the balance could have at least helped Notre Dame stay competitive.

Instead, it was a Clemson blowout, and the Tigers are headed back to their third National Championship Game in four years.