SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Since the 2015 season, when Clemson made the first of six straight college football playoff appearances, coach Dabo Swinney suffered heavy losses.
The Tigers have fallen in national title games, CFP semifinals and five times during the regular season. But arguably no defeat has been as complete and deflating as Saturday’s 35-14 loss to an unranked Our Lady.
The No. 4 Clemson trailed 28-0, gave up 263 rushing yards and allowed touchdowns on defense, offense and special teams. The Tigers avoided their first shutout since 2003 but didn’t score until 10:14 remaining in the game.
“It was a kick in the ass, period,” Swinney said. “It is what it is. We were just handed the cue back. It’s unfortunate. It hasn’t happened often, but it has happened a few times along the way. We’ve had that too. distributed a bunch. Tonight, we were the bug. We got the bad side of that deal, and we deserved every second of it.”
Clemson suffered their worst loss to an unranked opponent since dropping 24 to NC status in 2011. Although Clemson had to rally to beat Syracuse and remain undefeated on October 22, the team had an extra week to prepare for Notre Dame, which had fallen to marshal and Stanford on its original land.
“It was a really bad day and all the criticism was justified and should just be directed at me, period,” Swinney said. “It’s been one of the most disappointing days I’ve had as a head coach.”
Notre Dame struck first after registering their sixth punt block on FBS’ lead, which Prince Collie returned for a touchdown. The Irish then hammered against a Clemson defense that ranked No. 7 nationally against the run, allowing just 3 yards per carry.
Clemson Quarters DJ Uiagalelei and Cade Klubnik both threw interceptions that led to Notre Dame touchdowns, including a throw from Uiagalelei on that cornerback Benjamin Morrison returned 96 yards into the end zone early in the fourth quarter.
“We dropped an offensive score, a special teams score and a defense score, this is the first time this has happened since I’ve been a head coach,” Swinney said, in his 14th full season in as a Clemson coach. “We just got outclassed in every facet of the game. It’s on me. It’s my responsibility. And I wish I could say I saw it coming. We had a great week of practice.”
“Obviously we weren’t the most physical team, that’s 100% on me, setting them up the right way,” defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin said. “It was a combination of things, guys getting knocked out of a hole, [linebackers] fall back into the wrong gap, missed tackles as well. We’ll own it and move on.”
Despite being benched in Syracuse’s win, Uiagalelei started for Clemson and completed his first seven passing attempts, but only for 33 yards in windy conditions. He had just 41 passing yards in the first half and was replaced by Klubnik late in the third quarter with Clemson down 14-0. Uiagalelei returned to Notre Dame Stadium, where he made his first career start of 2020 and passed for 439 yards, a record for an opposing player against the Irish.
Klubnik, who entered with Clemson on his own 7-yard line, had his only attempted pass intercepted by Morrison. Notre Dame scored three games later.
“Every time you come out of the game you want to be the biggest supporter and give all the knowledge you can to my brother Cade,” Uiagalelei said. “He’s going to be great. Quarterbacks, we all make mistakes, but he’s going to be a great ball player. The biggest thing I like about Cade is he’s aggressive.”
Swinney said he was trying to get the attack going with Klubnik, who was “trying to make a play” when he lunged across his body and was intercepted.
Uiagalelei finished with 191 passing yards, 113 in the fourth quarter, but was sacked four times in the loss.
“I thought he held the ball a couple of times and just took a few bad sacks where the protection was there,” Swinney said. “You have to get rid of the ball. … I thought DJ answered. He came back and did some good things.”
Swinney said Clemson would assess personnel and other areas after the loss, but noted, “It’s not all about DJs.” Clemson Hosts Louisville next week with the chance to win the ACC Atlantic Division.
In 2021, the Tigers saw their streak of CFP appearances and ACC championships end at six.
“There’s not a single goal that isn’t there for us,” Swinney said. “I know everybody wants to win the national championship, and we don’t control that. But what we do control is trying to win this division, trying to win the league, the state championship and win the closer, whatever.
“When you do these things, you have a hell of a year.”