Notre Dame found a rhythm after a slow start and built a 45-20 lead early in the fourth quarter, only to get sloppy down the stretch before securing a 45-32 victory over North Carolina. The Fighting Irish physically dominated the Tar Heels after spotting them a 7-0 advantage in the first period. Audric Estime led a powerful ground game and quarterback Drew Pyne hit a few well-conceived scoring passes to wide open receivers to take control.
Notre Dame scored 38 points in 18 minutes from early in the second quarter through the first five minutes of the third. They scored on six consecutive possessions during that span. It was a breakout performance for the much-maligned offense although it came against a defense that was in disarray most of the afternoon.
Meanwhile, the defense harassed Carolina’s Drake Maye and the Heels could not keep pace with Notre Dame’s scoring surge. Trailing by 38-14, the porous Tar Heel defense finally stopped the Irish on a fourth down sneak late in the third quarter to stop the bleeding. Maye then hit Antoine Green on an 80-yard bomb to make it 38-20. Green ran by cornerback Clarence Lewis for the easy score.
Pyne and Estime responded by leading a long march that ended with a Chris Tyree scoring plunge with 13 minutes left in the game. The contest should have been over at that point but an ugly sequence of bad football and numerous penalties was just beginning. Linebacker J.D. Bertrand, who sacked Maye and recovered his fumble on his first play back from suspension, was flagged for another targeting call on the ensuing series. The Tar Heels completed the drive to close within 45-26 after a failed two-point conversion attempt.
Ten minutes remained as Estime resumed chewing up both the clock and huge chunks of real estate. His final carry of this statement-making drive ended badly, however, when he fumbled the ball while trying to stretch it out over the goal line. Rather than take a 52-26 lead, Notre Dame had to put its celebration on hold.
Sure enough, the Irish secondary collapsed again when Carolina was about to take its last gasp. On a fourth down and 21 play, cornerback Cam Hart allowed Green to run by him for another too-easy 64-yard scoring reception. Notre Dame’s Brandon Joseph ended any Tar Heel hopes for a miracle finish when he recovered an onside kick moments later. The Irish then ran out the clock.
The sloppy finish put a damper on a breakout offensive performance over the first 47 minutes. Estime’s fumble, Betrand’s ejection and three late touchdowns by the Tar Heels proved that Notre Dame is still a work in progress with plenty of room for improvement. The good news is the team will have two weeks to clean up its mistakes and mental breakdowns before heading to Las Vegas to face BYU.
Other individual bright spots on defense were improved play of linebacker Marist Liufau, who acted as a spy on Maye for much of the time. Safety Xavier Watt had a good game as did slot cornerback Tariq Bracy. For the offense, Pyne had his best career outing and Michael Mayer was simply the most outstanding player on the field.
The Irish recorded 576 total yards in 85 plays, including 287 on the ground. Estime had 134 yards on 17 carries. Pyne was 24 of 34 for 289 yards and three scores. Notre Dame held the Tar Heels to 66 yards rushing.
Let’s look at the answers to our pregame questions.
- Will Maye use his running ability to frustrate the Irish defenders? Only on the first drive of the game that resulted in a score. The Irish adjusted and punished Maye with hard hits the rest of the way.
- Which team will win the war in the trenches? Notre Dame, and it wasn’t close.
- Can the Irish wideouts make meaningful contributions? Lorenzo Styles had five catches and a touchdown while Jayden Thomas has a couple of receptions as well.
- Will Foskey and the Notre Dame pass rush cool off Maye and his 74% completion rate? Definitely. Maye was a pedestrian 17 of 32. He threw for 301 yards but nearly half of them were gained on the two long scoring passes to Green. Blame Notre Dame’s inexplicable coverage breakdowns for those.
- Can the Irish offense continue last week’s success on the ground? Absolutely. Estime led the way but Tyree and Logan Diggs were also effective. Even Pyne had a couple of good runs.
- Will the young Tar Heel receivers get the better of the Irish secondary? Yes, but not often enough to make up for their Swiss Cheese defense. That said, the Irish secondary may be reverting to the mean after playing over its collective head in previous games.
- Can Pyne have success throwing the ball downfield? Yes, especially on the play action touchdown pass to Styles that no one saw due to ABC’s lousy camera work.
- Will Notre Dame’s defense finally force a turnover that counts? Ironically, it was Bertrand who made the play after negating one last week with a targeting penalty. Even more ironic is that Bertrand was flagged again for trargeting later. I believe it was a bad call but the referees are inclined to overreact on close plays.
There were some negatives in the way Notre Dame finished the game, but the mere fact that the team continued to establish a respectable offensive identity is a step in the right direction. I wouldn’t quite say the Irish offense is “explosive” but it was far more fun to watch today than at any time this season. BYU will be a better test but beyond that the schedule in October should allow this team to provide some enjoyment for fans who were close to abandoning ship just two weeks ago.