ARLINGTON, Texas — When Clemson’s Dabo Swinney entrusted a team with championship aspirations to freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence in September, this is what the Tigers’ coach had in mind.
Lawrence threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns and No. 2 Clemson beat No. 3 Notre Dame, 30-3, on Saturday in the Cotton Bowl to reach the College Football Playoff title game. The Tigers (14-0) will play either No. 1 Alabama — for a fourth straight season in the playoff — or No. 4 Oklahoma on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, California.
“This is what we came here to do,” Swinney said. “This senior group just won their 54th game and they’re going back to their third national championship in four years.”
Clemson’s overpowering and experienced defensive line, led by ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, smothered Ian Book and the Fighting Irish (12-1), holding them to 248 yards.
"Our guys, they got it done in the trenches,” Swinney said.
On offense, freshmen led the way. Lawrence, making his 10th career start, was 27-for-39 and did not throw an interception against a Notre Dame defense that had been one of the best in the country. Freshman receiver Justyn Ross had six catches for 148 yards and two long touchdowns.
The Irish hung around for a quarter, with the teams exchanging field goals. But early in the second quarter, Notre Dame All-America cornerback Julian Love went out with what coach Brian Kelly said after the game was a head injury and Lawrence started taking apart the Irish secondary.
Lawrence hooked up with Ross on a deep throw down the sideline and the big receiver beat Love’s backup, Donte Vaughn, for a tackle-breaking, 52-yard score early in the second quarter. The Irish looked as if they might be able to keep it close at halftime, but the offense couldn’t keep that ferocious Clemson front, even without suspended star tackle Dexter Lawrence, out of the backfield.
In the final 2 minutes, Lawrence connected with Ross on a 42-yard score and with Tee Higgins for a one-handed, 19-yard touchdown reception — again over Vaughn — with 2 seconds left in the second quarter. Lawrence was 13-for-15 for 229 yards in the quarter.
That made it 23-3 at half and once again the Fighting Irish looked outclassed against the best of the best. Not so different from the 42-14 loss to Alabama in the 2012 BCS championship game or the 44-28 loss to Ohio State in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. In fact, Notre Dame is 0-8 in BCS and New Year’s Six games since winning the Cotton Bowl in 1993.
Clemson's Dexter Lawrence, sidelined by a failed NCAA test for performance-enhancing drugs, was hardly missed. The 340-pound junior was on the sideline, wearing an orange sweat shirt with a white tiger paw logo. Clemson is working on an appeal for Lawrence and two other players, but it is unlikely the Tigers will have them back for the national title game.
After Notre Dame tied it at 3 on Justin Yoon’s 28-yard field goal with 4 1/2 minutes left in the first quarter, the Fighting Irish appeared to have recovered the ball inside the 10 after an apparent fumble on the ensuing kickoff return.
Cole Kmet stripped the ball out near the sideline when tackling returner Derion Kendrick, who frantically swatted at the ball when trying to get it. A lengthy replay review determined that the nose of the ball barely touched out of bounds, just beyond Kendrick’s reach, before ricocheting back toward the field, where Irish receiver Chase Claypool made the recovery.
Irish safety Alohi Gilman set a College Football Playoff semifinal record with his 18 tackles.
Ian Book, who took over as the Irish starting quarterback in the fourth week of the season, was 17-for-34 for 160 yards with an interception and was sacked six times. He also had a fumble that led to Clemson’s field goal in the first quarter.