ARLINGTON, TEXAS - When Clemson’s Dabo Swinney handed his national championship-contending team to freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence in September, this is what the Tigers’ coach had in mind.
Lawrence threw for 327 yards and three touchdowns and No. 2 Clemson beat No. 3 Notre Dame 30-3 on Saturday in the Cotton Bowl to reach the College Football Playoff title game. The Tigers (14-0) will play No. 1 Alabama — a 45-34 winner over No. 4 Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl — for a fourth straight season in the playoff on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara, California.
“He’s just so poised. He just sees it. And he’s got a gift of an arm,” Swinney said. “But I just love his humility and how consistent he is with his preparation, day in and day out. Easy, easy guy to coach. Easy guy to get behind and support. His teammates love him.”
Clemson’s overpowering and experienced defensive line, led by ends Clelin Ferrell and Austin Bryant, smothered Ian Book and the Fighting Irish (12-1), holding them to 248 yards.
On offense, freshmen led the way.
Lawrence, making his 10th career start, was 27-for-39 and did not throw an interception against a Notre Dame defense that had been one of the best on the country. Freshman receiver Justyn Ross had six catches for 148 yards and two long touchdowns.
“It makes it a lot easier on me when you just have guys all around you who are such great players and take that load off of you. There’s not much pressure when you have guys this good playing around you,” Lawrence said.
The Irish hung around for a quarter, with the teams exchanging field goals. But early in the second quarter, Notre Dame All-America cornerback Julian Love went out with an apparent leg injury and Lawrence started taking apart the Irish secondary.
Lawrence hooked up with Ross on a deep throw down the sideline and the big receiver beat Love’s backup, Donte Vaughn, for a tackle-breaking, 52-yard score early in the second quarter. The Irish looked as if they might be able to keep it close to halftime, but the offense couldn’t keep that ferocious Clemson front, even without suspended star tackle Dexter Lawrence, out of the backfield.
In the final 2 minutes, Trevor Lawrence connected with Ross on a 42-yard score and with Tee Higgins for a one-handed, 19-yard touchdown reception — again over Vaughn — with 2 seconds left in the second quarter. Lawrence was 13 for 15 for 229 yards in the quarter.
“I wanted to help our team,” said Love, who passed concussion protocol at halftime and returned to the game. “And in a sense, I let them down in that regard.”
That made it 23-3 at half and once again the Fighting Irish looked outclassed against the best of the best. Not so different from the 42-14 loss to Alabama in the 2012 BCS championship game or the 44-28 loss to Ohio State in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl. In fact, Notre Dame is 0-8 in BCS and New Year’s Six games since winning the Cotton Bowl in 1993.
Though to be fair, Clemson has been doing this to everyone since Lawrence settled in. The Tigers haven’t had an opponent stay within 20 points since a close call against Syracuse on Sept. 29.
That was Lawrence’s first game as a starter, one he didn’t finish because of a head injury, and Clemson’s first after quarterback Kelly Bryant left the team.
Bryant, a senior, led the Tigers to the playoff last season and a semifinal loss to Alabama. He was pivotal in an early victory this season at Texas A&M. But Lawrence is a rare talent, a potential first overall NFL draft pick. When Lawrence took over, the ceiling on Clemson’s potential rose. Now it is being realized.
With a powerful arm, quick release, poise in the pocket and signature flowing blond hair, Lawrence is positioned to become one of college football’s biggest stars. It will help to have receivers such as Ross, Higgins and Amari Rogers, all underclassmen. And a runner like sophomore Travis Etienne, who broke a 62-yard touchdown run in the third quarter.
But Lawrence is the leader. In his 11th start, he will try to become the first true freshman quarterback to lead his team to a national championship since Oklahoma’s Jamelle Holieway in 1985.
No. 10 Florida 41, No. 8 Michigan 15
In Atlanta, Lamical Perine had a 5-yard scoring catch and 53-yard touchdown run to lead No. 10 Florida’s strong rushing attack Saturday, helping the Gators cap their comeback season with a 41-15 rout of No. 8 Michigan in the Peach Bowl.
After finishing 4-7 in 2017, Florida enjoyed a dramatic turnaround in Dan Mullen’s debut season as coach. Florida (10-3) closed the season with four straight victories. Michigan (10-3) closed a promising season with two straight lopsided losses.
Feleipe Franks ran and passed for touchdowns for Florida. He had a 20-yard scoring run in the second quarter and finished with 74 yards rushing on 14 carries. Franks passed for 173 yards.
Chauncey Gardner-Johnson led Florida’s defense with two interceptions, including one returned 30 yards for a touchdown with less than five minutes remaining. Gardner-Johnson’s first interception early in the second half, when Florida led only 13-10, set the tone for the Gators.
The Wolverines faced the unenviable task of having four top starters, including top rusher Karan Higdon and leading tackler Devin Bush, skip the game to focus on the NFL draft.
After giving up 567 yards in a 62-39 loss to Ohio State to close the regular season, Michigan’s defense again couldn’t play up to its No. 1 ranking. Florida had 427 yards — 257 on the ground.
Virginia 28, South Carolina 0
In Charlotte, North Carolina, Bryce Perkins threw three touchdown passes to Olamide Zaccheaus, Virginia’s defense dominated and the Cavaliers beat South Carolina in the Belk Bowl for their first bowl victory since 2005.
Perkins completed 22 of 31 passes for 208 yards and ran for 81 yards to help the Cavaliers (8-5) end the ACC’s longest bowl drought. Zaccheaus had 12 catches for 100 yards. Jordan Ellis ran for 106 yards and a touchdown, helping Virginia hold the ball for more than 42 minutes.
The Gamecocks (7-6) were shut out for the first time since an 18-0 loss to Georgia in 2006.
Nevada 16, Arkansas St. 13 (OT)
In Tucson, Arizona, Reagan Roberson bulldozed through one tackler and dove into the end zone on an 11-yard catch-and-run in overtime, lifting Nevada over Arkansas State in the Arizona Bowl.
Nevada (8-5) labored against Arkansas State’s defensive front all game before coming to life late, going up 10-7 on Devonte Lee’s 1-yard touchdown run with 1:06 left.
Arkansas State (8-5) racked up 499 yards, but was 1-for-5 in the red zone with two turnovers before marching quickly down the field at the end of regulation. Blake Grupe, who had one field goal blocked and badly missed on another, drilled a 32-yarder to tie it on the final play.
Grupe opened overtime with a 24-yard field goal, but Roberson bulled his way into the end zone to send the Wolf Pack rushing onto the field.