ARLINGTON, Texas (AP) — Notre Dame missed out on a big early game-turning play by the very nose of the football. The Fighting Irish defense missed having All-America cornerback Julian Love on the field when Clemson took over the Cotton Bowl.
When the third-ranked Irish needed just about everything to go perfect, their national championship drought instead stretched to three decades after another big postseason loss.
"With how much preparation we've put into this process, and know the players that we have on both sides of the ball, I couldn't ever imagine us coming out here and the outcome being this," linebacker Te'von Coney said.
No. 2 Clemson took control when freshman quarterback Trevor Lawrence threw three touchdowns in the second quarter, two of them to receivers covered by backup cornerback Donte Vaughn while Love was being evaluated for a possible concussion, and the Tigers went on to a 30-3 victory Saturday in the national semifinal game.
"He didn't pass part of his protocol, which was memory," coach Brian Kelly said about Love, who returned to the game after being re-evaluated by doctors at halftime.
"It's hurting me internally because I obviously wanted to be out there. I wanted to help our team," Love said. "And in a sense, I let them down."
Notre Dame (12-1), which won its last national title in 1988, has lost eight consecutive times when playing in bowls that make up the New Year's Six games — or the former BCS national championship. All but one of those has been by double digits, including a four-touchdown loss to Alabama in the title game nearly six years ago.
The Fighting Irish were in their eighth Cotton Bowl — they have played in no other bowl more often. That was also where they got their last major postseason victory, with wins over Texas A&M to cap the 1992 and 1993 seasons.
Notre Dame had allowed only five plays of 40 yards or more during its 12-0 regular season. Clemson had three such plays for touchdowns.
"Uncharacteristic of our defense. And we generated virtually no big plays," Kelly said.
"It's really surprising that knowing all year we stopped offenses from being able to have those big plays, and to come out here in this situation and give up big plays was very heartbreaking," said Coney, who had 16 tackles. "Take a few plays back here and there and it's a whole different game."
After Notre Dame tied it at 3 on Justin Yoon's 28-yard field goal late in the first quarter, the Irish looked to have recovered the ball inside the 10 after an apparent fumble on the ensuing kickoff return.
Cole Kmet stripped the ball out near the sideline when tackling returner Derion Kendrick. A lengthy replay review determined that the nose of the ball barely touched out of bounds, just beyond Kendrick's reach, before ricocheting back toward the field where Irish receiver Chase Claypool made the recovery.
"If we recover that ball, it's a whole different ball game," Claypool said.
With Love out of the game, Lawrence threw a 52-yard touchdown to fellow freshman Justyn Ross, who shed Vaughn near the 20 and got into the end zone after getting by another defender.
Lawrence threw two TD passes in the final 1:44 of the first half, including a 19-yarder to Tee Higgins, who made an impressive one-handed grab in the back of the end zone with two seconds left after the a deflection by Vaughn with his back to the ball.
"I have to make plays," Vaughn said.
Irish safety Alohi Gilman set a College Football Playoff semifinal record with his 18 tackles.
Ian Book, who took over as the Irish starting quarterback in the fourth week of the season, was 17-of-34 passing for 160 yards with an interception while being sacked six times. He also had a fumble that led to Clemson's field goal in the first quarter.
"This loss hurts," Book said. "But now we know what it's like and we know what we have to do to win."