On a day when -- no matter where you looked -- America was making history, Notre Dame sure as hell wasn't going to be a wallflower. So, of course, students rushed the field after the Fighting Irish won the game of the year. That's just what this football monolith does it upsets the No. 1 team in the nation.
Never mind that Notre Dame Stadium was a fraction full due to COVID-19 restrictions. Watching all that emotion and youth spill from the stands after Notre Dame's thrilling 47-40 double-overtime win over No. 1 Clemson was a sight to behold. After the upheaval of just about everything this year, watching Notre Dame's hallowed playing surface invaded with moist eyes and full hearts seemed like one of the most normal things of 2020.
And we're not the only ones who need normal right now. It had been 27 years since the Irish beat a No. 1 team. It had been 15 years since they had even played a No. 1 team. (Remember the Bush Push vs. USC?) The potential for a super spreader event wasn't exactly one of the concerns in the moment
"In the midst of the pandemic, there is pandemonium," said NBC's Mike Tirico, delivering the line of the night.
For Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, well, he had predicted it.
"Listen, I just want you to know, when we win this thing, the fans are going to storm the field," Kelly said he told his team after its walkthrough earlier Saturday. "With COVID being as it is, we gotta get off the field and get to the tunnel. I beat them all to the tunnel."
Kelly will live with the consequences, which include the biggest win of his 11-year career at Notre Dame. He did it with a game plan built on beating up Clemson star running back Travis Etienne and the Tigers' vaunted lines on both sides of the ball.
The mission had been accomplished when D.J. Uiagalelei's fourth-and-24 pass in the second overtime was fumbled away by Brandon Galloway in one of those desperate, abortive multi-lateral plays that's run when all is lost.
Out of the stands spilled years of frustration along with the students. Notre Dame hadn't beaten a No. 1 since the epic 31-24 game-of-the-century win over Florida State in 1993. It was the ninth such win 26 attempts with Notre Dame meeting No. 1 teams. Only Alabama has more (10).
"They made it feel like a true game even though there were less than 15,000 in the stadium," Kelly said. "When they stormed the field, you got a sense of a special moment at Notre Dame."
Whether there are more special moments ahead is being projected. If these teams win out, as expected, there will be a rematch in the ACC Championship Game next month. Saturday's narrow decision already makes it possible that, if Clemson gets revenge, both teams could find their way to the College Football Playoff.
"Man, I think it's very likely," Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah said. "Clemson's a great team. I think it's most likely we'll see them again. I think the whole world thinks we'll see them again."
For now, that means Notre Dame (7-0) has taken that next step it hasn't in years. It is elite, a notch above the others. Maybe a notch above everyone. On Saturday, it woke up the echoes in a meaningful way against a modern dynasty.
"We're not an easy out," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney concluded after his team's 36-game regular-season winning streak was broken. "Notre Dame, man, you just tip your hat to them."
Kelly has developed a brawny offensive line with 137 career starts going into Saturday. The defensive line is the heart of a defense that had been giving up slightly more than 10 points per game.
After staring down the barrel of the Uiagalelei's rocket arm and giving up a Notre Dame opponent record 439 yards passing, the night seemed like an even trade. The freshman quarterback lit up the sky again. In two games subbing for Trevor Lawrence, the freshman has thrown for 788 yards and four touchdowns.
That Notre Dame defense got the final say, sacking Uiagalelei for a cumulative 14 yards in losses on Clemson's first two snaps of the second overtime. That ruined the possession and the game for the Tigers. The nation's longest winning streak reached 13 games.
Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea should consider the victory a stamp of validation for his side of the ball despite the fact that it allowed 40 points. The Tigers only led twice-- once for 3 minutes near the end of regulation and in the first overtime before the Irish tied it. Opponents have now led for 23 minutes all season against Notre Dame.
Clemson guard Matt Bockhorst was right in the lead up to the game when he expected Notre Dame's D to try to stuff the Tigers' inside zone run with Etienne. The star who came back for his senior year to play in such games was held to 28 yards on 18 carries.
Etienne's bobble of Uiagalelei's pitch ended up in the arms of Owusu-Koramoah, who raced 23 yards for a touchdown to make it 20-10 Notre Dame with 6 minutes left in the first half. Uncharacteristically, Clemson has lost three fumbles in the last four games. Saturday marked the first time 18 games that any opponent had scored a point off a Tigers turnover.
Maybe that was an early sign this night wasn't going to go Clemson's way. Notre Dame RB Kyren Williams (140 yards rushing) scored three times on the ground, including the game winner from 3 yards out in the second overtime. Before any of that, he set the tone racing 65 yards for a touchdown on Notre Dame's second offensive snap.
"We preached it a lot," Williams said. "It's going to be a dogfight so we have to punch them in the mouth first before they punch us."
Ian Book has been the Irish's best boxer all season. The senior has largely been overshadowed in this year of star quarterbacks. He made up for a crippling (at the time) late third-quarter fumble into the end zone by throwing for 310 yards and adding 64 on the ground. He may not have the arm of Uiagalelei, but he does have that moxie -- and on Saturday, he got a game ball.
"He was the one that kept us going," Williams said. "He was the one that kept us alive."
There was redemption all around. Avery Davis came to Notre Dame as a quarterback, played some running back in 2018 and made it through spring 2019 as the No. 1 nickelback. With injuries at receiver, he switched back to offense. As a valuable asset in the slot, he came into Saturday with 12 catches this season. Among Davis' four catches for 78 yards Saturday were the two that helped put the game into overtime. Clemson inexplicably left him in single coverage on Notre Dame's last possession of regulation. He then split the safeties for a 53-yard catch and run to the Clemson 4. Three plays later, he caught Book's only touchdown pass of the night to tie it 33-33 with 22 seconds left.
Clemson left northern Indiana beat up. It had already been down three defensive starters, including defensive end Xavier Thomas, who missed the first half after being flagged for targeting last week. Bockhorst didn't make it through.
That's why the best part of Saturday night is that it could happen again. The Irish are living up to their decades-old reputation. The Tigers aren't through shaping theirs.
Now, somebody clear the field.
"We're not celebrating because we showed the world or changed the narrative because they were No 1 team in the country," Kelly said. "We're celebrating because we proved something to ourselves."
"It's a game that is literally going to live on forever," Davis said. "We just made history."
Until next time.