Notre Dame vs. Clemson score: Irish defense destroys No. 4 Tigers in signature win for Marcus Freeman

Notre Dame delivered a crushing blow to No. 4 Clemson by upsetting the Tigers 35-14 in a banner victory for first-year coach Marcus Freeman. The Fighting Irish used a suffocating defense and elite special teams to frustrate Clemson, limiting the visitors to just 281 yards of total offense and holding the Tigers without a touchdown until the fourth quarter when the game was essentially out of reach.

The Fighting Irish’s offense faced struggles of its own, but Logan Diggs and Audric Estime both surpassed 100 yards on the ground as Notre Dame imposed its will in key situations while averaging 5.6 yards per rush. Initially, however, it was a punt blocked by Jordan Botelho that Prince Kollie returned for a touchdown in the first quarter that gave the home team an early edge.

The defense took over from there as Clemson quarterback DJ Uiagalelei struggled to jumpstart the Tigers offensively. Eventually, he was replaced by five-start true freshman Cade Klubnik late in the third quarter but to no avail. Klubnik’s second pass was intercepted, leading to an Estime touchdown that made it 21-0 with 14:37 remaining.

Marcus Freeman’s signature victory

After embarrassing home losses to Marshall and Stanford earlier in the season, Freeman needed a signature win. This one certainly qualifies. Clemson has consistently been among the sport’s top programs for the past decade, and the Tigers came into the week as one of just six undefeated teams in the sport.

His recruiting work has been stellar; the Fighting Irish currently own the No. 3-ranked class in the 2023 cycle, per 247Sports. But in his first season as a head coach, Freeman needed some on-field accolades to pair with his work on the recruiting trail. He’s got them now, and the Fighting Irish may not be done yet. They figure to be heavy favorites the next two weeks against Navy and Boston College before a big season finale at No. 9 USC. Depending on where the Trojans are in the national landscape at that point, Notre Dame could have yet another chance to play the spoiler role on the national stage.

Clemson CFP implications 

The loss does not altogether eliminate Clemson from CFP contention, but it does make the Tigers’ path to the playoff more challenging. With a win over a well-regarded North Carolina team in the ACC Championship Game, Clemson could still make the CFP field as a one-loss team, according CBS Sports expert Jerry Palm. But they may need to win that game convincingly over the No. 17 Tar Heels, who improved to 8-1 with a 31-28 win over Virginia on Saturday.

Clemson still has three must-win regular season games ahead as well, though the Tigers should be heavy favorites in all three contests. Up first is Louisville next week, followed by Miami and South Carolina to close the season. All three are home games.

Clemson quarterback situation 

Clemson’s quarterback situation remains unsettled, as evidenced by the fact that coach Dabo Swinney turned to Klubnik for a spark in the second half yet again. But unlike in a 27-21 win over Syracuse two weeks ago, the move backfired. Swinney quickly pulled Klubnik and put Uiagalelei back in the game after Klubnik’s first pass was intercepted.

Where Swinney goes from here will be fascinating to see. Though Uiagalelei has obviously improved since last season, the Tigers do not inspire fear in opponents offensively and Klubnik appears to be the program’s quarterback of the future. With Clemson’s CFP hopes on shaky footing, Swinney’s insistence on sticking with Uiagalelei figures to be tested again in the season’s remaining weeks.

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