A Full-Circle Feat

Author: Meghan Cappitelli

Matt Cashore

Two years after Notre Dame’s momentous defeat of Clemson during the 2020 season, the unranked Fighting Irish and No. 4 Tigers matched up again. The two games, while both resulting in an Irish win, were far from similar home game experiences. A cloudless, sunny day with a high of 72 degrees, Nov. 7, 2020 was an anomaly in more ways than one in South Bend. 

At the height of the pandemic, those in the stands were limited to students, faculty, staff and players’ families, all screened for COVID-19. In a venue that usually seats just over 80,000, Notre Dame Stadium welcomed a fraction of that number. Socially distanced and masked, students watched the game from the comfort of scattered clumps in the stands as some of the only fans permitted to watch college football games in person that season.

The Irish emerged victorious over the undefeated Tigers in a season-defining upset. Just two weeks before the end of the fall semester, that night was also a semester-defining experience for students enduring an otherwise abnormal semester of strict guidelines and canceled activities; it was a deviation from the “COVID norm.” The game culminated in a double-overtime feat with a final score of 47-40, and excited students stormed the field in celebration.

Throughout its history, Notre Dame has faced off against Clemson seven times, securing their first win back in 1977 with Joe Montana’s two back-to-back touchdowns in the fourth quarter to rally the team for a comeback. Later that season, the Irish went on to win the national championship in the Cotton Bowl Classic. Although not as frequent of a matchup or as long-standing of a rivalry as Notre Dame’s contentious relationships with the University of Michigan or the University of Southern California, Clemson — after the 2020 victory, which was followed by the Tigers’ defeat of the Irish in the ACC championship game later that season — has become more of a relevant rival for Notre Dame. 

During this past season’s game, the Fighting Irish were already up 14-0 by the final quarter. Two interceptions, including a 96-yard pick-six, by Benjamin Morrison helped double the lead and clinch the game. A much-needed victory after losses to Ohio State, Marshall and Stanford earlier in the season, this was the first marquee win of the Freeman era. While far less of a nail-biting win than the down-to-the-wire feat two years prior, the final score of 35-14 was shocking and emphatic. As the final minutes ticked away, fans, led by the student section, gravitated down the bleachers and toward the field in preparation for the full-force field storm that many knew was coming. This time around, students poured onto the field from shoulder-to-shoulder positions in the stands, making the process far more of a hassle than the descent into the “COVID crockpot” — as memes circulated on social media described the 2020 field rushing event — in then-uncrowded stadium with dispersed seating. 

Senior Packy Murdock, who participated in both field rushes, noted the discrepancy in how the ushers approached the event. “They knew it was coming, so this time they kind of trafficked us and directed people,” Murdock said. “For the entire game, the question of, ‘if we win, are we storming the field?’ was floating around,” he noted, dubbing the 2020 experience more of a “free for all.” “The first time, it was more exhilarating. I still had a ton of fun, though.” 

Though a less climactic, in-the-moment shock response to the Irish prevailing as the unfavored underdogs, the 2022 field storm was a sort of callback moment to the 2020 post-Clemson victory celebration. It wasn’t a double-overtime, the Irish weren’t vying for a top-five spot and it wasn’t the middle of an ongoing pandemic. Nonetheless, senior Nick Cannistraci described the day as “incredibly full circle.” 

For Cannistraci, this was his first football field storm, as a quarantine mandate sidelined him from the experience in 2020. “My roommate at the time was a football manager, so he was getting tested daily leading up to games,” Cannistraci said. “I stormed the Joyce Center court when we beat Kentucky, but it didn’t compare,” he added, explaining that upsets tend to be more common in college basketball than in football. 

Cannistraci watched the thousands of students rush onto the field from the solitude of quarantine in South Bend’s Embassy Suites. “I usually don’t get a ton of ‘FOMO,’ but that day I definitely did,” he said. “This season, the field rush was a rite of passage for a lot of seniors. It was an itch I had to scratch, like I’d held in a sneeze for the last two years.”

The Clemson-Notre Dame rivalry will be put to the test again come November 2023. This time, the Fighting Irish and Tigers will face off in South Carolina for the first time since 2015.