The ACC Finally Gets a Statement Win
The ACC came into this 2015 season looking to make waves, with teams like Florida State, Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Louisville all looking to build on their 2014 campaigns, but they hadn’t made much of a ripple -- until now. With Clemson’s 24-22 victory over No. 6 Notre Dame, the ACC finally has its first 2015 signature statement win. Let’s look at this game a little more closely, and consider its ramifications moving forward.
Saturday October 3rd was unusually quiet for a college gameday, perhaps due to Hurricane Joaquin bearing down on the east coast. Without a doubt, Saturday night’s bout between the Tigers and the Irish was the best game of the week. It had everything: a raucous college environment, weather drama, big name players, schools rich in tradition, national title hopes, and a nail-biting game coming down to a 2-point conversion in the final seconds.
Looking at the first four comparisons, you’d certainly be wondering how Notre Dame managed to lose this game. They out-gained Clemson by 141 yards, ran more plays, and gained more first downs. The problem lies in the fact that most of their success occurred late in the second half. At halftime, Notre Dame had only managed to gain 135 yards (31.6% of their total). In fact, 51.9% (217) of Notre Dame’s yards came in the 4th quarter after they had already fallen behind, 3-21. By then, it was too late for the Irish.
As it often does, this game came down to costly turnovers. Interestingly enough, though, Clemson failed to score any points off of those turnovers. This shows that Clemson could have won this game by a lot more if the Irish defense didn’t play as well as they did. Notre Dame’s defense put them in a position to win multiple times, but the offense just couldn’t seal the deal.
The Irish Offense
All in all, it was a pretty pitiful performance from the Irish offense. Their first nine drives were punt, field goal, punt, fumble, punt, punt, fumble, punt, punt. After scoring two late touchdowns on consecutive drives to bring the game within eight, the next two drives resulted in an interception and a fumble respectively. It was actually pretty fitting that at the end of the game it was the offense that couldn’t score the two-point conversion to tie it up. They racked up a lot of yards, but failed to convert those yards into points.
Most of the offensive blame gets put on the Irish rushing attack. Quarterback Deshone Kizer ended up being the leading rusher with only 60 yards on 15 carries for one touchdown. After averaging 167 yards per game over his last three contests and rushing for six scores in the same timespan, C.J. Prosise only managed to put up 50 yards on 15 carries with no scores against Clemson. Now, it is universally agreed-upon that Clemson has one of the best defensive lines in the country, but Prosise is still an elite back and should be able to perform better for his team. He played well in the passing game (more on that later), but he it just wasn't enough.
Going back to Kizer, he actually had a very solid game, throwing for 321 yards and two touchdowns on 19 of 34 completions. Again, his interception was very costly, but otherwise it was a great performance. The passing game was only held back by the strength of the wide receivers. Budding star Will Fuller ended with just two receptions for 37 yards. Oddly enough, Prosise was the leading receiver with four catches for 100 yards and a score. Kizer has shown that he has great talent, but he needs his receivers to step up. Fuller was labeled as the go-to guy this season, and they need him to play like it if they expect to recover from this loss.
The Tiger Offense
In contrast to Notre Dame’s running game letting them down, Clemson’s running game carried the team to victory. Wayne Gillman racked up 98 yards on 22 carries, and star QB Deshaun Watson finished with 93 yards and one touchdown on just 16 carries. The Clemson running game accounted for 199 of their 296 total yards, and it proved to be just enough to carry them past a strong Irish defense.
The passing game looked pretty lackluster in this contest, with Watson going 11 of 22 for just 97 yards. Interestingly enough, he did toss two touchdowns (short ones). This had less to do with Watson playing poorly and more to do with the terrible weather forcing the Tigers to rely more on the ground game. It was never pretty, and in fact it was very sloppy at times, but it got the job done.
The defense obviously came up huge in this game, forcing four turnovers and stopping Kizer on the two-point conversation at the end. We’ve heard for a while that Clemson has a top-tier defense, and they really proved it on a national stage in this game. They by no means played a complete game (remember, they gave up 437 total yards), but they made up for it by forcing turnovers and defending well during big points in the game. They played very opportunistically, and held off Notre Dame’s late comeback. One main point of worry is how they played in the first three quarters versus how they played in the 4th. Through three, they held Notre Dame to just 210 yards and three points. In the 4th alone, they gave up 217 yards and 19 points. They could absolutely play better in the future, but this was a solid outing against the #6 team in the country.
Conference and National Impact
Swinney: We're 4-0 and haven't come close to playing our best football. But we have a team with a lot of heart, and you saw that yesterday.— Clemson Football (@ClemsonFB) October 4, 2015
At times, this game looked more like a Notre Dame loss than a Clemson win, but the Tigers still proved they should be considered among the elite teams in the country. They played solid defense and game-managed the offense in a torrential downpour, and that's about as much as you can expect from any team. Either way, Clemson now has a signature win on their resume, boosting their image and the image of the ACC as a whole. Speaking of the ACC, the conference now has six non-conference top-10 wins over the last two seasons, the most of any conference.
Nonconference Top 10 wins over the last two seasons:ACC - 6Big Ten - 4Pac 12 - 3Big 12 - 1SEC - 0— George Lane (@GMLane) October 4, 2015
Moving forward for Clemson, I think they have a fantastic shot at making the College Football Playoff. Next week’s matchup against Georgia Tech will likely not be easy, but ESPN still gives them a 66.4% chance to win at home. If they can come away with a victory against the Jackets, the remainder of their schedule is a cake-w alk. Florida State is currently the only ranked opponent they’ll play, but ESPN still gives Clemson a 64.4% chance to win. Aside from FSU, Miami is the only team that could possibly give Clemson trouble, but I don’t think they’ll be good enough to pull off the upset. Currently ranked No. 6, if Clemson wins out they should absolutely be one of the top 4 teams at the end of the season. In addition, they will likely not face much competition in the ACC Championship, which should only serve to boost their chances.
If Clemson were to make the Playoff, it would be huge for the ACC as a conference. It would mean consecutive years that they were represented in the Playoff (and by two different teams at that). Clemson making the playoff would also salvage a potentially disastrous season where multiple ACC teams were supposed to make waves nationally. Beyond that, Clemson certainly has the talent to make a push for the title, as teams like Ohio State have been less than impressive thus far in 2015. If they can get past Georgia Tech on Saturday, I like their chances to go all the way.