The Tigers earned their signature win of 2023 on Saturday, toppling No. 12 Notre Dame 31-23 in a packed Memorial Stadium and delivering coach Dabo Swinney a program-record 166th victory at a critical moment for the team.
Days after he went viral for an epic radio show rant against Tyler from Spartanburg, touting his past success and insisting the Tigers weren’t done just yet, Swinney got a classic Clemson performance from a roster stinging from injuries across the board and consecutive conference losses.
Running back Phil Mafah had a career-high 188 rushing yards and two touchdowns, quarterback Cade Klubnik made a number of big throws with only one turnover and linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. was the star of a suffocating fourth-quarter defensive showing against the nation’s No. 12 team.
The Tigers, as they’ve often done this season, made it harder on themselves when Mafah fumbled at the 1:57 mark to nullify what felt like a game-ending interception by Clemson safety Kylon Griffin.
But the defense made a sixth straight stop, sacking Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman on 4th and 10 with 58 seconds, to all but secure a upset. Clemson then avoided a Miami-esque error on its last offensive possession of the game and ran the clock out successfully.
The Tigers (5-4, 2-4 ACC) got back in the win column for the first time since Oct. 7 vs. Wake Forest and scored their first win over a ranked team all season.
Notre Dame dropped to 7-3.
Down multiple starters, Clemson put together arguably its best first half of the season against Notre Dame: no penalties, no turnovers and a ton of splash plays.
After allowing a field goal on the opening possession, the Tigers scored 10 straight points via a 41-yard Phil Mafah rushing touchdown and short field goal to go up 10-3 against the No. 12 Fighting Irish, who were also No. 15 in the first College Football Playoff rankings.
Mafah, starting in place of the injured Will Shipley, got Memorial Stadium rocking with his breakaway touchdown from 41 yards out. The crowd got even louder as Notre Dame muffed a punt and Tigers long snapper Philip Florenzo recovered it at the Notre Dame 22.
Clemson’s offense came up short in excellent field goal but still got points with a Jonathan Weitz 19-yarder and followed a similar script in the second quarter – getting touchdowns while the Fighting Irish had to settle for field goals, an obvious recipe for success.
A back-and-forth second quarter featured a 9-yard touchdown pass from Klubnik to receiver Tyler Brown (17-6) and a 28-yard interception return touchdown by star middle linebacker Jeremiah Trotter Jr. (24-6) as the Tigers riled up their home crowd.
Even after two more Notre Dame field goals and a stalled two-minute drill, a 24-9 halftime lead gave fans in Death Valley plenty to cheer about – and Klubnik, after a turnover-free half of football, made a point of pumping them up as he jogged to the locker room.
Leading 2-0 in the turnover margin, putting up points and preventing Notre Dame touchdowns on two red zone possessions, despite an awesome effort from Irish tailback Audric Estimé, Clemson was playing the sort of complementary football it’s only achieved in spurts this year.
The Fighting Irish wouldn’t back down, though, and got within a touchdown after a bad drop off the hands of Clemson receiver Beaux Collins fell right into a Notre Dame defender’s hands. He returned it 33 yards to set up an easy Estimé touchdown – just like that, it was 24-16.
Undaunted, Clemson used a combination of savvy Klubnik plays and bruising Mafah runs to rebound promptly with a gutsy 11-play, 75-yard drive. Mafah’s second rushing touchdown of the day brought the unranked Tigers’ lead back up to two scores, 31-16, on Notre Dame.
The back and forth continued with Notre Dame quarterback Sam Hartman’s untouched 26-yard rushing touchdown — a bad look for the Clemson defense, considering Hartman’s not exactly a burner — and the teams trading punts afterward. After three quarters, Clemson led 31-23.
Early in the fourth quarter another critical error prevented the Tigers from potentially going up two scores, as center Will Putnam’s snap went above Klubnik’s head on 3rd and 4 from the Notre Dame 35. In scoring position, Klubnik had to sprint backward and fall on the ball for a loss of 15 yards (and a drive-ending punt).
After Clemson’s defense forced a third straight punt, with Trotter leading a swarming effort, the offense once again came up short when Klubnik and Mafah botched a pitch option exchange and Mafah had to fall on the ball for a loss of 4 yards on second down. The result? Another Clemson punt.
But the defense kept showing up. Namely Kylon Griffin, the redshirt freshman safety pressed into action because of injury who picked off Hartman with 1:58 remaining in the game and the Fighting Irish trailing by eight points.
That would’ve been the end of things if not for Mafah’s puzzling fumble on his career day, giving Notre Dame the ball back down eight points with 1:47 to go. The defense, though, made sure once again the Fighting Irish had no luck in Death Valley.
Next Clemson game
Who: Georgia Tech at Clemson
When: Saturday, time TBA
Where: Memorial Stadium in Clemson