ARLINGTON, Texas — Donning a black suit and stylish black dress shoes without socks, Trevor Lawrence arrived to the College Football Playoff semifinal at the Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic looking the part of championship-caliber quarterback.
By the second quarter of the biggest game of his life, Clemson‘s true freshman phenom looked the part on the field too.
Behind Lawrence’s passing precision — and a key injury to Notre Dame‘s top defender — the Tigers rolled to a 30-3 victory on Saturday to advance to the national championship game for the third time in four years.
It also sets up, potentially, a fourth consecutive playoff clash with No. 1 Alabama.
When Clemson coach Dabo Swinney inserted Lawrence into the starting lineup in place of incumbent Kelly Bryant in Week 5, he had to be thinking about both last season’s playoff and this season’s.
In 2017, Clemson coasted into the CFP because of its dominating defense. But without a difference-maker like Deshaun Watson at quarterback, the Tigers couldn’t hang with Alabama, which routed Clemson 24-6 in the semifinal.
This time around, the Tigers, once again, boast another demolishing defense, which was on full display at AT&T Stadium in completely shutting down the Fighting Irish. But now, the Tigers are equipped with a game-changing passer, as well.
And in a flurry of downfield throws, Lawrence quickly changed the game before halftime.
Taking advantage of a head injury to Notre Dame All-American cornerback Julian Love, who mysteriously exited the game early, Lawrence tossed three touchdown passes in the second quarter to effectively put the Irish away.
After a shaky start for Clemson, and the game tenuously knotted at 3-3, Lawrence began attacking Love’s replacement, Donte Vaughn.
The signal-caller stepped into pressure and delivered a strike down the sideline to wideout Justyn Ross, who shed Vaughn’s attempted tackle and raced 52 yards for the score, almost doubling the longest passing touchdown that the Irish pass defense had allowed all season.
“I think even before the game I knew I belonged, I thought I belonged,” Lawrence said immediately afterward. “But first big throw, that’s when we started rolling.”
From there, Notre Dame’s defensive backfield, without Love, began to crater. Lawrence’s confidence started to soar.
After a holding penalty on Vaughn placed Clemson back in Notre Dame territory two possessions later, the Irish scrambled to give their backup more support. And on a game-defining third-and-14, Notre Dame linebacker Drue Tranquill sprinted to the flat on Vaughn’s side.
That, however, put safety Alohi Gilman in single coverage above the speedy Ross. And Lawrence read the defense perfectly before placing a perfect pass to Ross, who had easily dashed by Gilman, for a 42-yard touchdown.
Lawrence wasn’t done, though.
But after he found Tee Higgins on a 19-yard touchdown jump ball over Vaughn again just two seconds before halftime to put the Tigers up by 20, Notre Dame all but was.
All week leading into the semifinal, Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly attempted to downplay the Irish’s 42-14 flop in the 2012 national championship to Alabama, repeatedly noting this was a different team and that game was in the past.
But after the Irish failed to even score a touchdown against Clemson, the narrative of Notre Dame’s inability to match up with college football’s elite will be even more difficult for the Irish to shake, as Notre Dame once again was completely overmatched.
Meanwhile, for Clemson, the Tigers showed with Watson two years ago that when armed with a championship-caliber quarterback, it could go toe-to-toe with anybody in college football, including the vaunted Crimson Tide.
Going into another national championship bout, the Tigers appear to be armed now with another.