SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Since the 2015 season, when Clemson made the first of six straight College Football Playoff appearances, coach Dabo Swinney has endured tough losses.
The Tigers have fallen in national title games, CFP semifinals and five times during the regular season. But arguably no defeat felt as complete and deflating as the 35-14 loss Saturday to unranked Notre Dame.
No. 4 Clemson fell behind 28-0, surrendered 263 rushing yards and allowed touchdowns on defense, offense and special teams. The Tigers avoided their first shutout since 2003 but did not score until 10:14 remained in the game.
"This was an ass-kicking, period," Swinney said. "That's what it is. Just flat-out got our tails handed to us. That's unfortunate. It hasn't happened a lot, but it's happened a few times along the way. We've handed out a bunch of them, too. Tonight, we were the bug. We got the bad end of that deal, and we deserved every second of it."
Clemson suffered its worst loss to an unranked opponent since falling by 24 to NC State in 2011. Although Clemson had to rally to beat Syracuse and remain undefeated Oct. 22, the team had an extra week to prepare for Notre Dame, which had fallen to Marshall and Stanford on its home field.
"This was a really bad day and all the criticism was warranted and just should be directed at me, period," Swinney said. "This is one of the most disappointing days that I've had as a head coach."
Notre Dame struck first after recording its FBS-leading sixth punt block, which Prince Kollie returned for a touchdown. The Irish then hammered away against a Clemson defense that came in ranked No. 7 nationally against the run, allowing only 3 yards per carry.
Clemson quarterbacks DJ Uiagalelei and Cade Klubnik both threw interceptions that led to Notre Dame touchdowns, including an Uiagalelei throw that cornerback Benjamin Morrison returned 96 yards to the end zone early in the fourth quarter.
"We gave up a score on offense, a score on special teams and a score on defense, that's the first time that's happened since I've been a head coach," said Swinney, in his 14th full season as Clemson's coach. "We just got out-coached in every facet of the game. That's on me. It's my responsibility. And I wish I could say I saw it coming. We had a great week of practice."
"Obviously, we were not the most physical team, that's 100 percent on me, getting them prepared the right way," defensive coordinator Wes Goodwin said. "It was a combination of things, guys getting knocked out of a gap, [linebackers] falling back in the wrong gap, missed tackles as well. We'll own it and move on."
Despite being benched in the Syracuse win, Uiagalelei started for Clemson and completed his first seven pass attempts, but only for 33 yards in windy conditions. He had just 41 pass yards in the first half and was replaced by Klubnik late in the third quarter with Clemson down 14-0. Uiagalelei returned to Notre Dame Stadium, where he made his first career start in 2020 and had 439 passing yards, a record for an opposing player against the Irish.
Klubnik, who entered with Clemson at its own 7-yard line, had his only pass attempt intercepted by Morrison. Notre Dame scored three plays later.
"Whenever you come out the game, you want to be the biggest supporter, and give all the knowledge you can to my brother Cade," Uiagalelei said. "He's going to be great. Quarterbacks, we all make mistakes, but he's going to be a great ballplayer. The biggest thing I love about Cade is he's aggressive."
Swinney said he was trying to spark the offense with Klubnik, who "was trying to make a play" when he threw across his body and was intercepted.
Uiagalelei finished with 191 pass yards, 113 in the fourth quarter, but was sacked four times in the loss.
"Thought he held the ball a couple of times and just took a couple bad sacks where the protection was there," Swinney said. "You've got to get rid of the ball. ... I thought DJ responded. He went back in and did some good things."
Swinney said Clemson will evaluate personnel and other areas after the loss but noted, "It's not all on DJ." Clemson hosts Louisville next week with the chance to win the ACC Atlantic Division outright.
In 2021, the Tigers saw their streak of CFP appearances and ACC championships both end at six.
"There's not a single goal that's not there for us," Swinney said. "I know everybody wants to win the national championship, and we don't control that. But what we do control is try to win this division, try to win the league, the state championship and win the closer, whatever that is.
"When you do those things, you have a heck of a year."