Brian Kelly: ‘It was one of the louder environments that we had played in’
When Clemson and Notre Dame face off in the 83rd Cotton Bowl Classic on Dec. 29, as part of the College Football Playoff Semifinals, it will make just the fourth meeting between the two programs.
The Tigers have a 2-1 edge in the previous three meetings, but those three games were classics.
In 1977, Joe Montana rallied the Irish from a 10-point fourth-quarter deficit to beat Clemson with a last-minute touchdown at Death Valley.
The Tigers returned the favor in 1979 in South Bend, rallying from a 10-0 halftime deficit with 16-unanswered points in the second half. Billy Lott ran 26 yards down the near sideline in the fourth quarter for the game-winning score. Freshman safety Terry Kinard also had three interceptions that afternoon.
Then there was the 2015 matchup back in Death Valley. Again, Clemson blew a big lead in the second half as Notre Dame scored with seven seconds to play to pull within two points. However, Ben Boulware, Kevin Dodd and Carlos Watkins kept Deshone Kizer from executing the two-point conversion on a quarterback run, preserving the Tigers’ 24-22 victory.
“For me, it was an unbelievable game. I’ll never forget that game,” Clemson head coach Dabo Swinney said. “Just like I said earlier, just a minute ago, it was just a few plays. I mean, two, three plays that, you know, that went our way. But it was an amazing game. Both teams truly left it all on the field.
“We played in a hurricane, literally a hurricane. It was just horrible conditions to try to (play), but we both tried to do what we had to do to win the game, and it just came down to a couple of plays.”
Besides the torrential rains from Hurricane Joaquin, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly was amazed by the atmosphere at Death Valley that night as more than 82,000 fans packed Memorial Stadium despite the heavy rain showers all day long and even more during the Tigers’ 24-22 victory.
“It was just a great collegiate environment,” he said. “I had never been to Clemson. We’ve been to so many different venues, but to never be on their campus and to just see the tailgating and the pregame and the team run out, I mean, there’s a lot of traditions at Notre Dame, but I had never seen the traditions at Clemson.
“And it was just such a collegiate atmosphere. And it was loud, and it was one of the louder environments that we had played in. And to watch those kids battle, it was — you know, it was one of those games you remember because it was college football at its best.”
The Tigers went up 21-3 early in the third quarter when Deshaun Watson raced into the end zone from 21 yards out. However, Kizer slowly led the Irish back by throwing two touchdowns and running for another in the second half. He finished the game with 321 passing yards on 19-of-34 passing.
“They were an amazing opponent,” Swinney said. “And I think, you know, both teams walked away from the game with great respect for each other. And we were very fortunate to win the game.”
Kizer pulled Notre Dame within two points, 24-22, with seconds to play thanks to a one-yard touchdown pass to Torii Hunter with seven seconds to play. But the Tigers stuffed the two-point try that followed to secure the victory.
“It was definitely one of those moments that I think everybody — you know, one of those things that makes college football so great is people watching that game, because you just saw two teams that wouldn’t quit all the way down the stretch,” Swinney said.
The good news this time around is that the game will be dry as the Cotton Bowl is no longer played in the old outdoor Cotton Bowl, but inside the atmosphere-controlled confines of AT&T Stadium in nearby Arlington, Texas.
“It will be similar, right,” Kelly asked back jokingly. “It will come down to a couple of plays. And, in every great college game, somebody has got to make a play, and Clemson made a couple more plays in that game. But it was a great collegiate environment.”