For a Notre Dame offense that averaged 39.2 points per game in 2023, 8 points in 6 drives should have been easy enough. Down 31-23 at Clemson on Nov. 4, the Irish held the Tigers to 44 yards in the game’s final 21 minutes. But with chance after chance, Notre Dame couldn’t mount a drive longer than 23 yards during that stretch, and the game went final at 31-23.
Rocking an icy, white-on-white uniform combination, Notre Dame entered “Death Valley” (Clemson’s Football Stadium) on a hot streak. The Irish had destroyed USC (48-20) and Pitt (58-7) during the preceding homestand, achieving an overall record of 7-2 as the calendar turned to November. Out of the gate, it seemed that dominance would continue, as junior running back Audric Estimé hurdled his way to a 49-yard opening drive that ended in an Irish field goal.
However, Clemson’s running back nullified Estimé’s 120-yard day from scrimmage. Starting in the place of usual feature back Will Shipley, once-backup Phil Mafah toted the rock 36 times for 186 yards and two touchdowns. His workload began with a 41-yard score on the opening play of Clemson’s second drive, moving the Tigers ahead 7-3.
Moments later, the first of three Notre Dame turnovers allowed Clemson to extend its lead. Senior wideout Chris Tyree, a week removed from his electrifying, 82-yard punt return touchdown, muffed one just outside the Irish red zone. Clemson pounced on it, but the Irish defense stood the Tigers up at the 4-yard line, forcing a field goal.
Meanwhile, quarterback Sam Hartman moved the ball inconsistently. Though he had a season-high 68-yard rushing performance, using a 38-yard march to set up another Irish field goal early in the second quarter, he also had one of the worst passing profiles in his college career. His first of two interceptions — a pick-six — immediately followed Clemson’s second offensive touchdown, ballooning the Tiger lead to 24-9. Hartman ended the day with a season-low 43.3 completion percentage and 70.9 passing efficiency rating, reaching 146 yards without a touchdown.
With the first half spiraling away from the Irish, Hartman engineered his best drive through the air before halftime. After finding Tyree and Estimé for 20-plus-yard gains, he and the offense set up shop at the Clemson 3-yard line. But the Tiger defense buckled down, turning the powerful Estimé away and forcing a third Irish field goal. At halftime, Clemson led by 15, with the Irish conceding a season-high 24 first-half points.
Held outside the end zone for 30 minutes, Notre Dame badly needed a jolt. Just three plays into the second half, its breakout star delivered. Senior safety Xavier Watts snatched his 5th pick in three games, returning Cade Klubnik’s giveaway inside the 5-yard line. A one-play Irish drive followed as Estimé plunged in for his 13th rushing touchdown of the campaign.
As the Tigers’ lead narrowed to 24-16, the teams exchanged contrasting scoring drives to reach the third quarter’s midpoint. Clemson trudged down the field in 12 plays, finishing on a 1-yard touchdown run by Mafah. Notre Dame countered with 7 points in four plays, the last of which saw Hartman scramble down the right sideline for a 26-yard touchdown. With the score at 31-23, 21 stressful minutes of football set in for Irish fans.
To Clemson’s credit, Notre Dame never worked with quality starting field position on any of its final six drives. On average, the Irish opened at their own 10-yard line, never traversing the midfield stripe. After two consecutive three-and-outs, Hartman airmailed Tyree for his second interception of the game with just two minutes remaining. With Clemson ahead by 8, positioned in field goal range, and such little time left, the Kylon Griffin theft should have ended the game.
Mafah, with his only imperfection during a career day, made sure it didn’t. On a do-or-die third-and-2, he put the ball on the ground. Graduate student defensive tackle Rylie Mills recovered the fumble, gifting the Irish one more drive on their last breath.
But that drive went next to nowhere. A Hartman scramble initially moved the chains before three straight incompletions ushered in a game-deciding fourth down. With the pocket collapsing, Hartman could only sputter out a left-handed incompletion — a fitting conclusion to a backward day for the Notre Dame passing game.