The Clemson Tigers are heading to the College Football Playoff championship game for the third time in four years after smashing Notre Dame 30-3 in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday afternoon. The second-seeded Tigers will be playing No. 1 Alabama for the championship, also for the third time in four years. The defending-champion Crimson Tide beat Oklahoma 45-34 on Saturday in the Orange Bowl.
The Tigers were led by standout performances from quarterback Trevor Lawrence and wide receiver Justyn Ross, both true freshmen. Lawrence threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns. Ross was on the receiving end of two of those scoring strikes, finishing with six receptions in total for 148 yards.
Clemson's entire defense also deserves recognition, especially considering they were without the suspended Dexter Lawrence. The Tigers racked up six sacks and forced two turnovers. Notre Dame's attack hardly had room to breathe and managed just 248 yards of total offense.
The full highlight reel is below, courtesy of ESPN, followed by a recap laying out all the touchdowns.
The game started slowly, with both teams struggling to get into a rhythm. It was 3-3 at the end of the first quarter, and then Lawrence got things rolling with a 52-yard touchdown pass to Ross early in the second to make it 9-3 (extra point was blocked).
Here's the play, via CBS Sports:
A couple of drives later, and it was Ross over the top again, this time for a 42-yard score to make it 16-3, via CBS Sports:
The Fighting Irish came apart at the seams in the second quarter. The offense was unable to get anything going, and Clemson was making big plays right when they needed them. The third big touchdown of the quarter was the best of the bunch.
Notre Dame cornerback Donte Vaughn was draped all over Clemson wideout Tee Higgins, and even though he tipped the pass, Higgins still came up with this remarkable catch, via SportsCenter:
That put the score at 23-3 at halftime. Clemson would strike again in the third quarter, this time on an option handoff that saw the fleet-footed running back Travis Etienne explode out of the backfield on his way to a 62-yard touchdown run, via ESPN:
Etienne needed just 14 carries to finish with 109 of Clemson's 211 rushing yards. After that, the game turned into a slog, with Notre Dame unable to do anything meaningful.
Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney praised Lawrence's immaculate performance after the game, noting his early-season takeover of the starting job.
"After four games, I felt like [Lawrence] deserved to go start," Swinney said, per the Dallas News' Chuck Carlton. "And he gave us the best chance to win and play at an explosive level. He had great understanding and command of what we were doing."
The Tigers have made championship appearances routine in recent years, but it's special each time for the players.
"We've experienced a lot of success in my time here, but it really never gets old," Clemson defensive tackle Christian Wilkins said, per Carlton. "It's special each and every time. This is where we thought we could be."
As for Notre Dame, the program's reputation has taken another big hit on the national stage. Critics felt the team didn't deserve to make the CFP based on its schedule and its independent status, which insulates it from make-or-break conference title games.
The Fighting Irish have also faltered recently on the national stage, most notably their 42-14 drubbing at the hands of Alabama in the 2013 national title game. Head coach Brian Kelly felt Saturday's dismal showing was not like the other disappointing performances.
"This felt so much different, like we gave up four big plays that we characteristically don't give up," Kelly said, per CBS Sports' Ben Kercheval.
That may be true as far as the defense goes, but the offense's inability to move the ball all night long will only embolden critics. Despite being 12-0 coming into the game, the Fighting Irish simply weren't up to the task.
As for the Tigers, they will need to be just as sharp as they were on Saturday when they play Alabama on January 7. The CFP championship game is a title game rubber match between the two dominant programs, and the first two meetings were classics. Alabama beat Clemson 45-40 in 2016, only to see the Tigers strike back with a 35-31 comeback victory in 2017. The two programs also met in last season's CFP semifinal, which Alabama won 24-6.
It should be another titanic matchup between the two dynastic programs. Both teams feature suffocating defenses and plenty of explosive skill players on offense. Many college football fans are likely sick of these two teams playing for the national title year after year, so they will have to hope they can make the trilogy worth it.