Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love

USA Today Sports

The Moment When Notre Dame's Playoff Hopes Faded

Julian Love exited in the first half of the Cotton Bowl due to a head injury.

Nick Shepkowski
December 29, 2018 - 9:12 pm

ARLINGTON, Texas (RADIO.com) -- Even with a failed opening possession and a lost fumble on the first play of its second possession (after a video review), everything was looking up for Notre Dame after 15 minutes of the 83rd Cotton Bowl on Saturday night.

And then All-American cornerback Julian Love went out with a head injury, and Clemson ran off 20 straight points in a blink. The Irish trailed 23-3 by halftime, their swarming pass rush having disappeared and their offense showing no signs of life.

Love was put into concussion protocol and eventually returned to play the entire second half of Notre Dame's 30-3 loss to Clemson in the semifinals of the College Football Playoff.

Related: Notre Dame Crushed By Clemson, 30-3

Were the second-quarter defensive struggles as easy to explain as Love exiting the game?

"We have to be good enough that we can overcome the loss of one player," Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. "Clemson was able to overcome the loss of a great defensive lineman (Dexter Lawrence). We have to be able to overcome the loss of a really good player, and that’s the bottom line."

The Irish didn’t allow a play to go for more than 10 yards with Love on the field in the first half but allowed touchdowns of 52, 42 and 19 yards with him out.  

Kelly took part of the blame for the collapse during Love’s absence.

"When you’re in this game, you’ve got to be able to overcome the loss of key players," Kelly said. "And that means from a coaching standpoint and a playing standpoint."

Clemson quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who was named Outstanding Offensive Player of the Game, claimed the Love injury didn’t change the Tigers' game plan much in terms of Xs and Os.

"We identified that (Love exited), but that didn’t change much," Lawrence said. "He’s a great player on a defense full of great players, but overall it didn’t change that much for us."

Still, three plays after Love’s exit, Lawrence went right after Love’s replacement, Donte Vaughn, for a 52-yard touchdown pass that gave Clemson the lead for good. Vaughn previously had given up 16 receptions on just 21 targets all season.

Not that it made all the difference in a one-sided game: Notre Dame’s offense was held to virtually nothing. Defensive lineman Jerry Tillery even resorted back to old ways with a ridiculous late hit on Lawrence in the second quarter. But the wind clearly went out of Notre Dame's sails the second Love went out. 

Nick Shepkowski is the executive producer of the McNeil & Parkins Show on 670 the Score in afternoon drive. Follow him on Twitter @Shep670.​