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College football takeaways: Notre Dame's biggest win in years comes with an addendum

Pete Thamel
·19-min read

No. 4 Notre Dame’s double-overtime victory over No. 1 Clemson will be remembered as a game of historical consequence that may have few consequences. It was steeped in history, but could be recast in just a few months. It had the requisite historical touchstones, officiating controversies (and delays) and a scintillating performance by a star — freshman quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei — that we’ll be gazing at for many more autumns.

Make no mistake, Notre Dame outlasting Clemson, 47-40, in double overtime will be a vintage bottle in the most elite of Notre Dame collections. Even if a speech by President-elect Biden bumped it off NBC for a while. It showcased the onions of senior quarterback Ian Book, the otherworldly disruptive ability of linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah and highlighted Notre Dame’s ability to dominate in the trenches against one of the standards in college football.

It’s the most impressive regular season victory of the 11-year Brian Kelly era, the first Irish win over a No. 1 team since 1993 and it required a 91-yard drive in the final 1:48 for Notre Dame to tie the game and force overtime. “A night I’ll never forget, no matter how old I am,” Book said.

But this is where reality intersects history, as Book may need to recapture that magic for another night. Consider this the most 2020 sentence of the college football season, the kind that would get you drug tested if you wrote it in February: For Notre Dame to make the College Football Playoff, they may still need to beat Clemson in the ACC title game with Trevor Lawrence at quarterback, as he’ll be back from his COVID-19 hiatus.

Notre Dame is in position to win the regular season ACC title, which would be a humorous historical footnote and the rare first for a program that’s accomplished nearly everything. The Irish would be 1-for-1 in their history, as the pandemic forced them to have a shotgun football marriage with the ACC for a season.

Notre Dame safety Shaun Crawford celebrates after defeating the Clemson Tigers 47-40 in double overtime at Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 7, 2020. (Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images)
Notre Dame safety Shaun Crawford celebrates after defeating the Clemson Tigers 47-40 in double overtime at Notre Dame Stadium on Nov. 7, 2020. (Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images)

In terms of the big picture, Notre Dame is certainly in much better position to secure the program’s second-ever College Football Playoff bid. But as Clemson’s Dabo Swinney was quick to point on Saturday night in the wake of his program’s first regular-season loss since 2017, Clemson still has everything in front of them.

“No one was handed a trophy tonight,” he said. “They didn’t roll out a stage and hand out a trophy … The only thing we can’t be right now, we can’t be 11-0. It’s the only thing we can’t be.”

Notre Dame will vault up to No. 2 or No. 3 in the national rankings, with the sport’s most impressive win this season. But with a matchup against Clemson likely in the ACC title game, there’s little assurance that this win keeps them from slipping past No. 4 if they lose that game. And how will the CFP committee view a win over Clemson without Trevor Lawrence?

Notre Dame has a trap game at Boston College this week, and Kelly’s focused on first-world problems. “We’ve got a target on our backs now,” he said. “There are so many more things on my plate.”

Clemson’s 36-game regular season win streak ended thanks to Notre Dame’s (7-0, 6-0) early dominance and late heroics. The Irish led by 13 late in the second quarter, much thanks to a defensive front that held star tailback Travis Etienne to 28 yards on 18 carries and a 23-yard fumble return for a touchdown by Owusu-Koramoah.

But Clemson took over the game in the second half and bungled a chance to ice the game late in the fourth quarter thanks to a holding penalty and Etienne’s poor decision to run out of bounds. Clemson’s drive started with 2:10 remaining in the game and somehow only took 22 seconds off the clock and burned just one Notre Dame timeout, which proved a critical game-management blunder. “Mistakes caught up with us,” Swinney said.

Clemson struggled all night to run the ball, however, and that sequence exposed the weakness in the interior of the Tigers’ offensive line. Clemson isn’t going to push around college football’s elite this season no matter who is at quarterback. “That was incredibly disappointing,” Swinney said of Clemson’s 34 net rushing yards on 33 attempts.

Clemson’s foibles set up Book, who improved to 27-3 as Notre Dame’s starter, but had yet to deliver an iconic moment of this caliber. He atoned for an earlier fumble into the end zone – one of many Irish red-zone mishaps – by leading an eight-play, 91-yard drive to tie the game. It’s difficult to imagine Book throwing a prettier or more important pass in his Irish career than his 53-yard rope to Avery Davis to set up the tying touchdown. Davis snared a four-yard score to tie the game at 33-33.

Book’s foil, D.J. Uiagalelei, answered immediately on the first play of overtime with a 24-yard rocket to Cornell Powell that set up a one-yard Uiagalelei plunge. Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards, the most ever by a Notre Dame opponent, but came up short when he couldn’t answer back-to-back touchdowns by Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams.

Notre Dame’s final stand included the best work of the night by defensive coordinator Clark Lea, as back-to-back sacks put Clemson in third-and-24 and essentially ended the game. That sent the fans on the field and social media abuzz.

“We’re not celebrating because we showed the world or changed the narrative,” Kelly said. “We did it because we proved something to ourselves, that’s really satisfying and that’s what we’re celebrating.”

In some ways, this win encapsulates the Brian Kelly era at Notre Dame, one that has lapped the success of his immediate predecessors. Yet every new milestone is greeted with a reminder of a shortcoming. Sure, you beat a No. 1 team, but can you beat them again to reach the College Football Playoff?

We’ll likely get a chance to find out. And after all the thrills, plot twists and delights this game delivered, that will be welcomed. Here’s hoping that history repeats itself with this caliber of game.

Fans storm the field after the Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Clemson Tigers 47-40 in double overtime on Nov. 7, 2020 in South Bend, Indiana. (Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images)
Fans storm the field after the Notre Dame Fighting Irish defeated the Clemson Tigers 47-40 in double overtime on Nov. 7, 2020 in South Bend, Indiana. (Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images)

Who could replace Jim Harbaugh?

There’s not much left to say about Jim Harbaugh’s faceplant at Michigan. The embattled Michigan head coach continued a season of astounding hopelessness on Saturday with a blowout loss to Indiana. And the biggest takeaway was that there was nothing surprising about it.

Michigan was the inferior program in a 38-21 loss, falling to Indiana for the first time since 1987. While Indiana coach Tom Allen is the heavy favorite for Big Ten coach of the year, the intrigue surrounding how Michigan would handle Harbaugh’s potential exit only increased.

Earlier in the week, we did a deep dive on the NFL’s potential interest in Harbaugh. It was split, as some folks in front offices and in the industry thought he’d have no chance. Others felt like some big-ego’d NFL owner would be desperate enough to gamble on Harbaugh, hoping he could rekindle his 70% win percentage.

But every loss like the one to Indiana on Saturday decreases Harbaugh’s chances to land in the NFL. Those franchises would want a guy who played for the NFC title three straight years, not the scraps from a team lodged in the lower tier of the Big Ten East.

Who could Michigan go after? This is the tricky part. As hiring a coach in the COVID-19 world is hard, just like just about anything in this world. Iowa State’s Matt Campbell would be a popular name. Minnesota’s P.J. Fleck won historically big at Western Michigan and could resuscitate Michigan’s haphazard recruiting operation. Oregon’s Mario Cristobal would be able to energize the recruiting as well. As would Cincinnati’s Luke Fickell, although it’s hard to think of a born-and-bred Buckeye willingly wearing maize and blue. Wake Forest’s Dave Clawson is a proven winner and would fit the school’s academic leanings. Boise State’s Bryan Harsin has won big, but he’s got no local ties.

It’d be hard to imagine Michigan hiring a coordinator, and there are few coaches with Michigan ties that jump out.

So Michigan finds itself where it was entering the weekend — stuck with no easy answers. But they added a historic loss that only compounds the urgency for some kind of answer.

A Penn State of misery

While Michigan’s collapse this season has sucked up much oxygen, Penn State’s 0-3 start has been just as jarring. The Nittany Lions suffered one of the worst losses of James Franklin’s tenure there on Saturday, as Maryland beat Penn State for just the third time in 44 tries.

What lingers more than a home loss to Maryland was the tenor of it, as the Terps led 35-7 in the third quarter and the game was never really much of a contest. Penn State lost in the waning minutes to Indiana on a clock-management mistake, got beaten handily by Ohio State last week and now have a 35-19 shellacking from Maryland that’s going to conjure big-picture questions about the program.

Penn State already has more losses this season than last season. And while Franklin’s job is in no kind of remote jeopardy, this clunker of a year raises a fascinating question about this bizarre COVID-19-tainted season. What kind of context will a bad year be taken in during 2020?

Franklin is playing this season without Micah Parsons, a top-15 pick at linebacker, and star running back Journey Brown. Parsons opted out while Brown is sidelined with an unspecified medical condition. They were two of the program’s elite players. Will that be considered in the equation when evaluating where things went wrong for coaches, assistant coaches and coordinators?

Franklin led the charge to play for all the right reasons, but it’s becoming clear that fans, boosters and administrations aren’t viewing this as a mulligan year. Franklin will be fine. His contract runs through 2025 and he’s won 11 games in three of the last four years.

But what will be fascinating at Penn State will be the reaction and perhaps overreaction to what’s quickly looking like a lost season. Will coordinators be shuffled? Will changes be demanded? Will the results of 2020 be taken in context? Here’s guessing it’ll be viewed like just any other bad season.

Freeze frame

Liberty coach Hugh Freeze has been fired for calling escorts from his school phone and set Ole Miss’ program ablaze with NCAA sanctions. There are plenty of opinions about his situational sanctimony, loose ethics and ability to be willfully ignorant of NCAA violations.

But few have ever argued about Freeze’s ability to coach football and call games, a talent he’s taken to one of the few schools who’d overlook his dodgy history by allowing him to be the head coach. (Cue the predictable forgiveness banter here.)

Freeze is amid a flurry of firsts at Liberty, as the school is ranked in the Top 25 and has now beaten the first two ACC programs in school history. No win in school history may have been as crazy as this one, as Alex Barbir hit a 51-yard field goal to win the game, 38-35. The field goal came after a Justin Fuente timeout negated Virginia Tech’s blocked 59-yard field goal that the Hokies returned for a touchdown, which was thought to be the game-winning score.

But after Fuente had called timeout, Liberty decided to go on fourth-and-6 and converted the first down to move the field goal to 51 yards. “I told the team it’s on me,” Fuente said after the game. He added: “I told the team I may never get over it. I really wish I hadn’t called a timeout.”

In just his second year at Liberty, Freeze has emerged as the caliber of coach who is ready to test the ethical and moral soul off a Power Five school’s administration. A majority of schools wouldn’t touch Freeze because of his program’s NCAA history at Ole Miss and the very public personal failings that led to his exit.

But there are places where winning has long trumped integrity – Auburn comes to mind – that would take the publicity hit for the wins Freeze would deliver. At 7-0 and with Malik Willis playing as well as any quarterback in the country, Freeze has fast-tracked those institutional scruples questions.

Florida finally gets over hump against Georgia

Florida coach Dan Mullen spent about a month as a lightning rod masquerading as a coach. He made a foolish comment about packing a stadium amid a pandemic, acted like a WWE heel during an on-field brawl and wore a Darth Vader mask to his press conference afterward. He took a $25,000 fine from the SEC, and got beat up for a few consecutive news cycles.

On Saturday against Georgia, Mullen did what he does best – call offense and maximize the performance of his quarterback. With Georgia down two defensive backs – Richard LeCounte (injury) and Lewis Cine (ejection) – Mullen’s Gators filleted Georgia with a relentless wave of offense.

No. 8 Florida’s outburst in its 44-28 thumping of No. 5 Georgia was the type of performance that channeled the Spurrier’s Fun-n-Gun or Urban’s spread offense. It was the kind of victory that could long resonate in the SEC East, where Florida (4-1) will be difficult to catch.

This serving of the World Largest Cocktail Party will be remembered as the Kyle Trask game, as Florida’s star quarterback finished with four touchdowns, completing 30-of-43 for 474 yards. Trask became the first SEC quarterback to throw four touchdowns in five straight games, and along the way may have earned a trip to New York. (That could be a metaphorical trip to the Heisman ceremony, considering no one is sure what the Heisman proceedings could look like in COVID times.)

Mullen downplayed this victory, his first over Georgia while head coach at Florida, as something that put Florida over some kind of hump.

But with Florida likely headed to Atlanta to play foil to Alabama in the SEC title game, this is a significant victory for Mullen. And while Florida needs to keep momentum, this win for Mullen is the biggest regular season victory in his third season.

Florida head coach Dan Mullen, center, celebrate with fans in the stands after the Gators defeated Georgia in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Florida head coach Dan Mullen, center, celebrate with fans in the stands after the Gators defeated Georgia in an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Nevada’s revival

Not since Colin Kaepernick ran the pistol with aplomb back in 2010 has Nevada been a threat to win a conference title.

Three games into 2020, however, the Wolf Pack look like one of the Mountain West’s most complete teams. In Jay Norvell’s fourth season, they’ve put together a swaggering, swashbuckling group that Norvell readily says can compete to win the Mountain West this year.

“I think we’ve felt like that all along,” Norvell said of Nevada’s shot at a league title. “This is not something that just happened. We’ve been working three years for this.”

Norvell points out the trio of stars he refers to as the Three Amigos – redshirt sophomore quarterback Carson Strong, junior receiver Romeo Doubs and junior tight end Cole Turner – who’ve all grown up together in the program. Nevada went 8-5 in 2018 and 7-6 last year with an upset of Purdue, but it appears ready to take a leap.

“They all have the same personality and attitude,” Norvell said. “They are quiet guys and love to play and practice and compete. They’re what we’ve been building this thing for.”

Strong is a sophomore quarterback from Vacaville, California, who ended up at Nevada after an injury kept him from playing his senior year of high school. That scared off more prestigious suitors. “Sometimes that’s a blessing when you’re at Nevada,” Norvell said. “The kid has a great senior year and everyone jumps on him.”

Strong redshirted and has grown into the role, as he has nine touchdowns, no interceptions and has completed 73% of his passes in Matt Mumme’s Air Raid style offense. (Yes, Matt is the son of Air Raid godfather Hal Mumme.)

Nevada has slashed through Wyoming (37-34), UNLV (37-19) and Utah State (34-9) and may not be an underdog through the rest of a schedule that doesn’t include Boise State.

“I think we’re capable of being a Top 25 team,” Norvell said. “If we continue to win, we will be. The top teams in this league can compete with anyone. I think that’s been proven.”

Nevada is proving, so far, they are one of the top teams in the Mountain West.

The defense is not resting at Toledo

Toledo coach Jason Candle overhauled his defensive staff after the Rockets finished No. 102 in scoring defense last year. Toledo went 6-6, missed a bowl and had the program’s first non-winning season since 2009. “I think there’s a bad taste from last season in everyone’s mouth,” Candle said. “The entire program.”

Amid the spree of MACtion on Wednesday night, perhaps the most jarring result was seeing Toledo’s defense lead the way in its 38-3 victory over arch-rival Bowling Green. Candle dove back into his roots by hiring Vince Kehres from Mount Union as his defensive coordinator this offseason, and the results were immediate. (Toledo lost to Bowling Green last year, 20-7.)

Candle called the defensive performance a “newfound energy and sense of confidence” for the program, which had become a bit too comfortable winning high-scoring games with its explosive offense.

Kehres came from Mount Union, where he went 95-6 as a head coach and won two national titles. He’s the son of Larry Kehres, who compiled the highest winning percentage at any level (92.9) during his iconic run at Mount Union from 1986 to 2013, when he won 11 national titles.

Jason Candle played at Mount Union and began his coaching career there, so there’s a strong philosophical crossover. And while Candle was quick to point out that Toledo made plenty of mistakes on Wednesday, they got five TFLs and scored 15 points off turnovers. Linebacker Dyontae Johnson (7 tackles) and defensive end Terrance Taylor (5 tackles) led the way.

Along with Kehres, Candle also hired longtime stalwart defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski, who has worked at Alabama, Miami and Missouri. The shift in defensive culture is off to a strong start.

“It starts with attention to detail and energy on that side of the football, and the belief you can win a championship by playing great defense,” Candle said. “We have a solid staff on that side of the football.”

Long road to the top for SJSU

The most unlikely 3-0 team in the nation may be San Jose State, which began practice this fall a week after most of its Mountain West peers and needed to travel 327 miles to Humboldt State University in order to just practice.

The Spartans have authoritative wins over Air Force, New Mexico and San Diego State, and the majority of the Aztecs’ win on Friday night coming without star quarterback Nick Starkel.

San Jose State coach Brent Brennan won three total games his first two seasons there and has slowly built the Spartans to where they could be in contention for the Mountain West title this season.

“This year has obviously been challenging for everyone,” Brennan told Yahoo Sports in a phone interview. “It’s been particularly challenging for young people. What they’re experiencing is not what any of us remember college to be. They don’t go to class. They don’t really go on campus. They can’t go to the movies or parties.”

The Spartans are off to the school’s best start since 1982, when Jack Elway – you-know-whose dad – was the coach and quarterback guru Steve Clarkson was the quarterback.

For everything to come together this year, Brennan credited the alignment of the university and the athletic department. San Jose State moved the entire program from San Jose to Humboldt State to practice in October when local restrictions wouldn’t allow them to in their home area. It took buy-in from the president (Mary A. Papazian) to the CFO (Charlie Faas) to the athletic director (Marie Tuite) to allow San Jose to take over a dorm at Humboldt and practice at their facilities.

“This has been an incredible journey,” Brennan said. “It was a big-time effort from everyone involved here – the alignment in our leadership has given us a chance to build a program.”

Against SDSU on Friday, Starkel left the game in the first quarter and didn’t return. He did come back on the sideline to help coach up backup Nick Nash, and Brennan said Starkel’s injury wasn’t going to be season ending. (He declined to get into further specifics on Starkel, who has ping-ponged from Texas A&M to Arkansas before finding a home in San Jose.)

The San Jose State defense, which finished No. 99 in the country last year, carried the Spartans to a win. DC Derrick Odum’s crew ranks No. 12 nationally with just 14.7 points allowed per game, more than half of last year’s average (31.9). Junior linebacker Kyle Harmon and senior safety Tre Webb have been key leaders and the top tacklers.

“I know this journey for our program and this year has brought us together,” Brennan said. “This team really loves each other, and that was evident last night.”

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