Blue and Gold Illustrated

BGI April 2019

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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54 APRIL 2019 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED F ollowing Notre Dame's 30‑3 defeat in the College Football Playoff to eventual national champion Clemson, head coach Brian Kelly was ad‑ amant that the 27‑point defeat of that 12‑0 team was nothing akin to the 28‑point debacle the Fighting Irish suffered against Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game after a 12‑0 regular season in 2012. "I left that game [versus the Crimson Tide] feeling like there was so much work to be done from the inside out, so much development, so much recruit‑ ing," Kelly said following the Clemson loss. "This felt so much different. … We can come back here and win it. It's a dif‑ ferent feeling for me." Upon further review, Kelly stood by his original stance on the eve of spring practice that com‑ menced March 2. He described the loss to the Tigers, who also whipped Alabama 44‑16 in the title game, as an "80‑20 game." "Eighty percent of the stuff we loved," Kelly said. "It was about 20 percent of the things that we wish we could have been better at. We needed to coach better. We learned a lot as a coaching staff." Whereas against Alabama the Irish were reeling from the outset, the game with Tigers was knotted at 3‑3 when it appeared Notre Dame had recovered a Clemson fumbled kickoff inside the 10‑yard line that was over‑ ruled by the replay booth. The crushing moments then oc‑ curred late in the second quarter when the Tigers — leading 9‑3 and then stopping the Irish on the Clemson side of the field — covered 165 yards in 4:54 for a 23‑3 halftime lead, taking full advantage of consensus All‑Amer‑ ican cornerback Julian Love's injury absence during that frame. Clemson freshman phenom quarterback Trevor Lawrence passed for 229 of his 327 yards (or 70 percent) that quarter. It might actually have been more of a "75‑25" game because the feeling is that one quarter without Love was the crucial difference in the outcome. In fairness and as a counterpoint, a championship‑caliber team should not lament the absence of one crucial player as a reason for defeat. Notre Dame's most recent national cham‑ pion in 1988 suspended the team's top rusher (Tony Brooks) and top re‑ ceiver (Ricky Watters) against 10‑0 and No. 2 USC, but still won 27‑10 on the road. Also, Love or no Love … the Irish offense tallied three points. A 12‑0 regular season and 22 victo‑ ries the past two years has put Notre Dame into at least a top‑10 operation in consecutive years for the first time since the early 1990s, and at least knocking on the championship door. "If you don't get into those games, you can't get better as a football team," Kelly emphasized. "The mar‑ gin and the measuring stick is to win a national championship. To get in that game and to measure it against the 20 percent of things we want to do better, it's the dividing line." All football begins with line play, and along both the offensive and de‑ fensive fronts the past several years Notre Dame has excelled with mul‑ tiple top NFL prospects, which it should continue to produce in the years to come. "The big difference is that in '12 we couldn't control the line of scrim‑ mage [versus Alabama]," Kelly said. "We were able to meet and at times control at the line of scrimmage [versus Clemson]." That too might be debated after totaling only 88 rushing yards against Clemson. Where Kelly might acknowl‑ edge that a greater disparity oc‑ curs is the star power and depth at the skill positions on offense — perhaps the final 20 percent of the equation. Lawrence is a probable future No. 1 over‑ all pick, but Clemson's receiv‑ ing corps also was replete with players such as five‑star recruits Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins. Under Kelly, Notre Dame's best combination of skill play‑ ers might have been in 2015 with first‑round pick Will Fuller at wide receiver, second‑ round selection DeShone Kizer at quarterback and third‑round choice C.J. Prosise at running back, with freshman Josh Adams as his backup. The Irish finished 10‑3 last year, finishing with losses to top‑ five foes Stanford (38‑36) in the clos‑ ing seconds and Ohio State (44‑28) in the Fiesta Bowl. Unfortunately, the 20‑percent issue then was defensive coaching. The recent NFL Combine could be‑ come a financial windfall for running back Dexter Williams and especially wideout Miles Boykin, but neither began to fulfill his full potential until his senior season. The difference at Clemson or Alabama has been such players often make their impact felt immediately. "Their skill was outstanding," Kelly said of Clemson's playmakers. "We have to continue to grow in the skill area and that's the next chal‑ lenge for us to take the next step. "We're doing really good things as a program, but we still have to continue to build in those areas to make sure that 80‑20 becomes 100 percent. If we do that, we'll win a championship." That final 20 percent, or even one percent, can often be the most ardu‑ ous. ✦ Notre Dame-Clemson: An 80-20 Game THE FIFTH QUARTER LOU SOMOGYI Senior Editor Lou Somogyi has been at Blue & Gold Illustrated since July 1985. He can be reached at Brian Kelly called the 30-3 loss to Clemson in the College Football Playoff an "80-20" game, where the coaches loved 80 percent of what the Irish did, but there "was about 20 percent of the things that we wish we could have been better at," according to the head coach. PHOTO BY BILL PANZICA

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