SOUTH BEND, Ind. – Clemson football’s national championship hopes may have been blown away on a windy night at Notre Dame Stadium.
The fifth-ranked Tigers were dominated Saturday night by Notre Dame, 35-14, as gusts of up to 35 mph swirled in the historic arena. Falling to the unranked Fighting Irish will make Clemson a long shot to get back into position for the College Football Playoff with only three games remaining in the regular season and then the ACC championship game.
Things started slowly for the Tigers and did not improve.
Notre Dame blocked a punt at the end of Clemson’s first possession and returned it 19 yards for a touchdown to set the upset stage.
Late in the second quarter, the Fighting Irish had perhaps the most important drive of the game, marching 78 yards on 11 plays. Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne scored on a 5-yard touchdown with just 38 seconds left in the half. The Irish ran it 10 times on possession and only faced third down once. Instead of just a seven-point lead going into the third quarter and not much happening on offense for either team, it was a 14-0 lead that gave the Irish momentum going into the break.
Clemson’s offense sputtered in the third quarter and quarterback DJ Uiagalelei was taken out for the second time in two games, giving way to freshman Cade Klubnik. Uiagalelei was 13-for-19 passing but for only 78 yards at the time. He couldn’t connect with anything even moderately deep.
But Klubnik was an immediate disaster, throwing an interception from his own 7-yard line to set up Notre Dame with a touchdown for a 21-0 lead. Uiagalelei went back in on the next series and threw an interception that was returned 96 yards for a touchdown by Benjamin Morrison that ended any chance of an unlikely comeback.
The Tigers ranked fourth in the ACC in rushing, averaging 4.5 yards per attempt. In their last game, two weeks ago against Syracuse, Will Shipley and Phil Mafah combined for 266 yards and three touchdowns on 45 carries. But Clemson managed only 52 yards on 21 carries. Notre Dame, meanwhile, which struggled early on the ground, finished with more than 250 rushing yards.
Clemson did not convert any third downs in the first half and never even gave itself much of a chance. The Tigers were 0-for-5 with the closest chance being third-and-7. The others were third-and-22, third-and-14, third-and-13 and third-and-17. Clemson went for a fourth-and-4 from the Notre Dame 38-yard line and tried a deep wind-blown pass that fell incomplete. The Tigers came into the game ranked third in the ACC by converting 48.4 percent on third downs.
The one bright spot for Clemson on the day was that it clinched the ACC’s Atlantic Division. The Tigers clinched because Syracuse lost at Pittsburgh.
The Tigers will play for the ACC championship for the seventh time in eight years. They made six consecutive appearances before falling short last season.
Clemson has two remaining ACC games, both at home, against Louisville and Miami, respectively. The Tigers will finish their regular season at home against South Carolina.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Clemson’s College Football Playoff hopes damaged with Notre Dame loss