On Saturday night, for the first time since 1977, when Joe Montana led the soon-to-be national champion Fighting Irish to a 21-17 victory, Notre Dame visited Clemson in Death Valley. Because of Hurricane Joaquin, South Carolina Governor (and Clemson alum) Nikki Haley warned fans to avoid attending the game unless absolutely necessary. With playoff hopes in the balance for both teams, a muddy slugfest was all but inevitable. For all intents and purposes, this was to be the biggest college football game of the season thus far.
They weren’t going to let a little bit of rain stop them from enjoying themselves. Neither was I.
The weather in Clemson on Saturday morning was like peak Bob Dylan – wait a short period, and it was bound to change. Though the sun never quite broke through, there were periods during which the grey was less grey and the rain, lighter. At other times, the clouds opened, saturating everything and turning the vibrant college town into a giant Slip ‘n Slide. Puddles gathered, growing inches-deep and slowing incoming traffic to a near standstill.
Even so, the vibe around Clemson retained its typical resolution and energy, albeit with a few more mud stains and pairs of rain boots. The grass tailgating areas became swampy pits in which everyone not driving a pickup truck was at a severe disadvantage. During the worst rainfall, one gentleman next to me said, “You can’t eat. You can’t drink. You can only swim.” Another invited his friend to “get your pickup truck out here and raise some hell!”
Fighting Irish fans turned out in droves, prepared to cheer on their injury-hobbled team. Even without starting quarterback Malik Zaire, Notre Dame had enjoyed an excellent start to its season, including victories over Virginia and Georgia Tech, which led to a #6 national ranking. The Golden Domers have a tendency to enter every season with a certain degree of hype; having a school-exclusive television contract and legions of followers beyond your alumni base certainly helps, but this team looks like a legitimate national title threat, perhaps more so than others in recent seasons.
Speaking of hype, the Tigers know a little something about that. Expectations are seemingly higher every season in Death Valley, and Dabo Swinney’s self-confident rhetoric only adds fuel to that fire. That a generally-accepted term for failing to meet expectations, “Clemsoning,” has entered the national consciousness because of the Tigers’ unique ability to fall apart at the worst possible times makes the perpetual Shock the World Tour seem like a charge of static electricity raising the hair on your arm more than a trip to the electric chair. Any outcome isn’t surprising to this suffering fanbase, which has stood with its team at the door of true preeminence for the better part of the last decade, only to realize it left the key in the stadium of some unranked ACC foe.
Still, walking into Clemson Memorial Stadium and seeing the massive sea of orange, obscured by various shades on translucent ponchos, it did not seem to me that Clemson would allow Notre Dame to get away with a win, at least not without some severe reckoning. The rain was heavy and constant at this point, adding a certain luster to Notre Dame’s golden helmets. The energy in the stadium turned vitriolic at the introduction of the Fighting Irish, whose fans held one major section but were otherwise spread thin throughout the crowd.
A quick aside: By no means is Clemson my preferred college football team. I didn’t go there, and I have no real connections beyond the scores of my friends who did. When the Clemson Tigers carry on their tradition of running down the hill after rubbing Howard’s Rock, however, it is very difficult not to get swept up in it. Upon hearing the Tiger Rag, knowing what’s coming, there is a certain sense of community, almost no matter where you allegiance lies. It’s the sort of thing that, to me, transcends college football. I know that sounds hokey, but when you’re in it, you understand.
As for the game, well, you probably know how it turned out. James Vasiliou covered it wonderfully, as usual, when he cleaned up the mess this week, though in this case the mess was literal in Clemson. Watson got Clemson’s offense off to a piping hot start, with two touchdowns in the first two drives. Though Watson did throw two touchdown passes in the game, Clemson’s running attack was what kept the Tigers afloat. Under the conditions, a 14-3 halftime lead seemed to be strong enough to hold. When Watson ran for a 21-yard touchdown in the third quarter, it seemed comfortably out of reach for the Irish.
Though Notre Dame’s four second half turnovers, three of which were fumbles, point to how messy the game was, quarterback DeShone Kizer was able to rally the Irish almost to the point of full return. A 21-3 lead gave way to a nineteen-point fourth quarter for Notre Dame, which came within a failed two-point conversion of sending the game to overtime. Despite Kizer’s best efforts, however, it was the Irish who left Death Valley in disappointment, having fallen just short of its biggest victory of the year.
As for Clemson, it would be unwise to slight the Tigers until further notice. They adjusted to game conditions and were better prepared than Notre Dame, and they now look, as Fox Sports noted, like the ACC’s best playoff hope. Georgia Tech is on a three-game losing streak, including a loss to Notre Dame in South Bend, and though Florida State remains undefeated, it has appeared vulnerable at times.
Both of those games represent the toughest expected challenges left for the Tigers, and both occur in Death Valley. Precedent suggests that Clemson may lose to an unranked N.C. State or (SHUT YO MOUTH) South Carolina, neither of which would be terribly surprising for pessimists. For the mud-caked Tiger fans, however, this season may be their best chance at finally shocking the world.