When the football departed the right hand of Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, the clock at AT&T Stadium insisted that seven seconds plus an entire second half remained in the game. Sprinting toward the corner of the end zone, rising to receive the pass, Tee Higgins would render those remaining digits meaningless. Games cannot end midstream. But this one should have, right there, after Higgins hit the ground.
A juggling, one-handed touchdown grab from Higgins— a preposterous feat of hand-eye coordination and balance against an overmatched Notre Dame defense — provided Clemson a 20-point lead at halftime as the Tigers rolled to a 30-3 victory Saturday in the Cotton Bowl and secured their spot in the national championship game against Alabama.
Undeterred when an Irish defensive back tipped the football, Higgins secured the ball to his chest and planted his right foot in the turf as he skidded out of bounds. It counted for six points, and achieved a note of finality: This game was over.
Higgins rose from the turf as a throng of Tigers ran to greet him. Lawrence raised his arms to the sky. His pass was not pinpoint. Higgins ensured precision was not necessary. A freshman yet to experience a defeat in college, Lawrence breezed through the College Football Playoff semifinal with 327 yards and three touchdowns on 69.2% passing to his bevy of weapons.
“These guys are unbelievable,” Lawrence said after completing 27 of 39 passes. “Just throw it in their area, and they’ll come down with it.”
The victory returned No. 2 Clemson (14-0) to the final of the playoff for the third time in four seasons, and closed the book on No. 3 Notre Dame (12-1). Lawrence keyed the offense during a 20-point second quarter, producing two touchdowns in the final five minutes of the half. He connected twice with fellow freshman Justyn Ross for touchdowns before Higgins completed his last-second highlight.
The Tigers entered the game as prohibitive favorites, having won their last eight games by an average of 38 points. The offense has scored more this season than any other in school history, and the defense had held opponents to single digits six times. The semifinal offered another opportunity for Clemson to flaunt the talent at the fingertips of coach Dabo Swinney.
“The guys put in the work, do a good job of preparing,” defensive lineman Christian Wilkins said. “And it shows on Saturdays. There’s a lot of things that people don’t see behind closed doors, how much grind, how hard we work to get to this point and get to this level.”
Clemson played without star defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence, who was suspended last week after testing positive for a performance-enhancing drug. Lawrence is one of three potential first-round picks on the Tigers’ defensive line. Another member of the trio, Clelin Ferrell, provided his offense with an opening a few minutes into the game by forcing a fumble from Irish quarterback Ian Book.
The turnover led to a Clemson field goal. Book authored an immediate response with a nine-play drive to set up a tying kick. The sequence allowed the game to maintain its premise of competitiveness for a few more minutes. For the rest of the day, the Irish offense consisted mostly of Book fleeing from Tigers.
“It’s hard to win a game when you score three points,” said Book, who was sacked six times.
In the second quarter, the Tigers churned ahead. Lawrence connected on a 52-yard pass to Ross for the first touchdown. The two freshmen linked up after Ross created separation on a deep route down the Clemson sideline. Lawrence lofted the ball to Ross, who evaded the grasp of two defenders en route to the end zone.
Lawrence piloted another scoring drive as the half drew to a close. He hit fifth-year senior Hunter Renfrow for 16 yards, then sprinted for 11 of his own. After a pass-interference call on Notre Dame defensive back Donte Vaughn, Lawrence found Ross again, this time for a 42-yard score.
Tucked into the slot, Ross sprinted past Irish safety Alohi Gilman. Lawrence feathered a pass up the seam, leading Ross to the end zone. Ross spread his arms like a bird. Swinney pumped his fist and saluted Lawrence.
“Every ball he throws is almost perfect,” Ross said. “You have to almost try to drop his ball.”
The lead grew to 13 — and it would only grow. Clemson took over on its own 20 with 39 seconds remaining. After two completions by Lawrence, Renfrow secured a 32-yard catch. A roughing-the-passer call on Notre Dame defensive tackle Jerry Tillery pushed the Tigers to Notre Dame’s 19. Lawrence and Higgins took care of the rest.
Higgins ran a fade pattern into the corner of the end zone. The pass from Lawrence was deflected by Vaughn. Higgins captured theball with his right hand and collected the score.
“There’s not that much pressure, when you have guys this good around you,” Lawrence said after winning his 12th start without a loss.
The Tigers furthered the rout in the third quarter, after defensive back Nolan Turner picked off a pass from Book in Clemson territory. Bottled up in the first half, Tigers running back Travis Etienne capitalized on a gaping maw in the center of Notre Dame’s front. He burst through the daylight and streaked to a 62-yard touchdown. All that remained before the rout would end was a matter of minutes on the clock.