ARLINGTON, Texas — When Albert Huggins darted through the line and tackled Notre Dame running back Dexter Williams for no gain on the second play of the Cotton Bowl Saturday, he looked over at the Clemson sideline and flexed his muscle at Dexter Lawrence.
“We flexed together,” the All-American said following the second-ranked Tigers’ 30-3 victory over No. 3 Notre Dame at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
Clemson’s defense flexed its muscles all afternoon in the College Football Playoff Semifinal game. The Irish ran for just 88 yards and totaled 248 overall as they had no answer for an inspired Tigers’ defense who was playing for the suspended Lawrence.
Notre Dame (12-1) was held to just three points, the fewest for an Irish team in its bowl history.
“That was great,” Lawrence said. “It just shows you the character of the guys and the brotherhood that Clemson has and how much we just love and care for each other.”
It was obvious how much the Tigers (14-0) cared for Lawrence. To a man, everyone of them on defense was playing for “Big Dex” who was forced to sit down after a drug test came back positive for a banned substance by the NCAA.
“We definitely knew not having Dex could make an impact, but we have some great guys behind him,” defensive end Austin Bryant said. “Albert, Nyles (Pinckney) and Jordan (Williams) all stepped in and did a hell of a job tonight. I’m so proud of those guys and I am proud of Dex, too, for being there for those guys to lean on and give them advice. He has had a great attitude throughout this whole situation.
“We were able to pick up the slack for him and get him (to the national championship game).”
Bryant did his part, too. The defensive end, who was the only member of Clemson’s Power Rangers not to earn All-American honors this year, showed out with six tackles, three for losses, including two sacks. Bryant was named the game’s Most Valuable Player on a defense that finished with six sacks, two turnovers, two forced fumbles and one interception.
With Lawrence out, there were those in the media who speculated on how Clemson could stop Williams and Notre Dame’s running game. The Notre Dame running back was averaging 117.5 yards per game coming into the Cotton Bowl and 6.5 yards per carry.
The Tigers held the Irish to a season-lows 88 yards on the ground and 2.5 yards per carry. Williams ran for just 54 yards and averaged just 3.4 yards per carry. His longest run was just 11 yards.
“It is (the media’s) job to talk. It is kind of what makes it exciting with people speculating or whatever, but Dex is definitely a huge loss, HUGE, but at the same time we have capable guys who have worked just as hard that have waited their whole life for this opportunity,” linebacker Kendall Joseph said. “The coaches have done a great job developing talent and that is what we do here at Clemson, so for us we were confident in ourselves and we have played some good offenses before.
“We knew we were a better defense. That is no disrespect to Notre Dame’s offense because they have a great offense, but we are always going to think we are a better defense because that is how hard we work for it.”
As the Tigers now advance to play Alabama in the national championship game on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, Calif., it hopes to find something new on Lawrence’s case and if an appeal can overturn the NCAA’s ruling before the title game.
As for Saturday’s game against the Irish, Lawrence said he was at peace with it and he enjoyed watching his teammates dominate Notre Dame.
“I enjoyed it, but I didn’t like that I could not play,” he said. “But it was good just seeing the guys make plays, have fun. Obviously, it hurt not being able to play, but I wanted to let them know I appreciated everything they were doing.”