SOUTH BEND, Ind. — At 12:10 Sunday morning, the last student cavorting around the playing surface at Notre Dame Stadium picked up his sweatshirt and walked off as security closed in. The four guys dressed as nuns and the girls in green pajamas had already departed. The hundreds of chest bumpers, random huggers, picture takers and other wild celebrators had hit the exits as well.
It had been 27 minutes after the No. 4 Fighting Irish had beaten No. 1 Clemson in double overtime, 47-40, in the biggest and best game of the season. What followed the final play was a euphoric, heedless, cathartic, unwise, spontaneous celebration. It was a scene from simpler times, pre-2020.
COVID-19 social distancing be damned, a high percentage of the announced crowd of 11,011 stormed the field and turned it into an old-fashioned mosh pit. In a completely abnormal season, it was a joyous moment of completely normal college football mayhem. Months of adhering to a buttoned-down existence were swept aside by the emotional tidal wave created by a huge and dramatic victory.
Was this a super spreader event, or a super sweet moment? Check back in a week or two, and hope for the best.
“It was crazy,” said Notre Dame wide receiver Avery Davis, whose two catches in the final minute helped stave off defeat and force the game into OT. “It’s different than when you see it in the movies. You’re being bumped around by the fans.”
Mike Collins, the 75-year-old public address announcer at Notre Dame Stadium, tried the diplomatic approach to crowd dispersal. This is his 38th and final year on the job, and he clearly didn’t want to be the killjoy at the biggest football party in this historic edifice since the Irish beat No. 1 Florida State in 1993.
“We want everyone to be safe and sound here,” Collins intoned. “Please make your way off the field. … Use any open aisle, please. … And if the ushers could help out a little bit, that would be helpful.”
“OK, the band is leaving,” Collins said a few minutes later. “The fans should, too. The players left.”
Boys ran races from midfield to the goal line. Others jumped up to touch the crossbar. A girl did cartwheels. Finally, Collins dropped the ultimate incentive on the dawdling revelers.
“If you stay too long,” he said, “it’ll be last call somewhere.”
This was an empty threat. Some 45 minutes later, the bars on Eddy Street were still teeming. The Notre Dame campus and surrounding area were going to go long and strong in the wee hours Sunday.
College football and pandemic best practices are incompatible. Eventually, the emotion of a big moment is going to win.
And this was a very big moment for Notre Dame, in what has seemed like an endlessly unfulfilled quest to wake up its own echoes of glory.
Coach Brian Kelly has done great work returning the program to relevance, but there is a gap between relevance and dominance. He hadn’t yet closed that gap. There were a lot of wins—Kelly mentioned several times last week that his team had won 12 in a row and 29 of its last 32—but not the kind of wins that Clemson and Alabama rack up.
Clemson, riding a 36-game regular-season winning streak, arrived presenting just that kind of juicy target. And the Tigers were vulnerable, lacking the most talented player in the college game (quarterback Trevor Lawrence) and several key defensive players.
Against an opponent that pounded his team by 27 points in the 2018 College Football Playoff, Kelly played the prophet of positivity all week to his players. He foretold the postgame scene.
“When we win this thing, our fans are going to storm the field,” he told the team during the pregame walkthrough Friday. “So when they do that, we’ve got to get off the field. We’ve got to get to the tunnel.”
After kickoff, Kelly’s confidence was rewarded immediately. On the first official play from scrimmage, running back Kyren Williams burst off the left side and went 65 yards for a touchdown.
Notre Dame wouldn’t score an offensive touchdown again until its final offensive play of regulation. In between the Irish built a 23-10 lead, saw it disappear into a 26-all tie, then found themselves behind 33-26 after a fabulously patient and clutch touchdown drive engineered by Clemson freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei.
With the Notre Dame defense refusing to give up big plays and making sure tackles, the Tigers had to execute a series of short gains to get down the field. It was yet another sign of the coming stardom of Uiagalelei, whose cannon arm is one thing but poise in big settings is something else. On a night when the Irish shut down star running back Travis Etienne, Uiagelelei responded by throwing for 439 yards.
“D.J. is a special player,” Kelly said. “Trevor Lawrence is a special player, too. Boy, I’d like to have Dabo’s problems.”
But Kelly has a special player as well in quarterback Ian Book. He doesn’t have the professional future or physical gifts of his Clemson counterparts, but he is a highly successful operator of Kelly’s offense. And he had his finest college moment Saturday night—not long after one of his darkest college moments.
Book had fumbled a potential go-ahead possession into the end zone in the third quarter. But Kelly told him he was going to win the game, and the senior chose to believe his coach.
“Things happen,” Book said. “Playmakers forget about it. … Quarterback is really hard. You deal with a lot of pressures, but when it goes right you get a lot of love.”
On a first down from the Notre Dame 43-yard line inside the final minute of play, Book dropped to pass and saw a gift: Clemson had let Davis go deep without safety help. Book fired the pass down the middle and Davis made the catch, finally being tackled at the 4-yard line. Three plays later, Book hit Davis for the tying touchdown.
That sent the game into overtime. After trading touchdowns in the first OT, Notre Dame used seven methodical plays to score and take a 47-40 lead. The length of that possession gave the Irish defense time to rest, and that unit came out turbocharged, sacking Uiagalelei twice and delivering big hits on receivers.
When a fourth-and-24 play was stopped, the game was won and the stands—filled to about 14 percent capacity—emptied. It was the kind of unbridled celebration you see a handful of times somewhere in the sport every year—except this year.
“It was so fun,” Book said.
There could be more fun to come for these two teams. They’re the best two teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, so a rematch in Charlotte for the league championship seems entirely possible next month—and with Lawrence back, Clemson would be solidly favored. This outcome does nothing to lessen the possibility of both teams making the College Football Playoff, either.
And there is some growing rivalry between the two programs. Kelly said last week that he was aware of Clemson’s acumen at stealing signals, and adjusted accordingly—the Irish huddled and called plays off wristbands. Kelly said that was “exactly” correlated to keeping the Tigers from intercepting their play calls.
Then there was the moment when Swinney appeared to intimidate the ACC crew into picking up a key pass interference flag in the fourth quarter. That led to a “f—- you Dabo!” Chant from the Notre Dame students.
More rivalry, please.
Of course, that will require them both to take care of business the rest of the way. Clemson’s schedule isn’t too arduous (Florida State, Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech). Notre Dame plays three of its final four games on the road, starting at Boston College Saturday.
And let’s just say there is some worrisome precedent for the Irish to deal with there. Their last win over a No. 1 team, that Florida State game in ’93, was followed by a letdown loss to Boston College. That wound up costing Notre Dame the national title.
Count on Kelly to bring that up about 200 times in the next six days.
“I’ve got to get this team back up,” he said. “We’ve got a target on our back now.”
Let’s hope the array of challenges that lies ahead doesn’t also include a new COVID outbreak from the field storming. It would be nice to have this one moment of college football normalcy in 2020 without having to pay a price on the back end.