Notre Dame did not quite have a bye week before its scheduled week off, but the Tar Heels presented such a little challenge, one can be forgiven for making that mistake. Even without junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush, the No. 21 Irish (5-1) never trailed in a 33-10 victory at North Carolina (1-5) on Saturday, outgaining the Tar Heels 487 yards to 265. As Wimbush spent the week on the sidelines due to a strained right foot, sophomore quarterback Ian Book got his first career start.
“All in all, to go on the road and win by 20-plus points for a third time this year, I’m really pleased with our guys in terms of their mental preparation and how they go on the road and attack this,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “It is hard to do, really hard to do, and I’m proud of them.”
Through a quarter, North Carolina played Book and Notre Dame even in one regard and only one regard: the score. The Irish had 146 total yards to the Tar Heels’ seven. Notre Dame had rushed for 57 yards, while North Carolina lost eight on the ground. Book completed eight of his 11 passes in the opening frame. One of the two teams had the ball for 11:37 of the quarter — go ahead and guess which — yet the contest remained scoreless.
Book changed that on the first play of the second quarter, connecting with fifth-year senior receiver Cam Smith from six yards for Book’s first career touchdown and Smith’s first at Notre Dame. After a quick Tar Heels three-and-out, Irish junior running back Josh Adams romped 73 yards to give the Irish enough scoring they could have stopped then. Adams finished with 118 yards on only 13 carries, again seeing only abbreviated time due to both a lopsided score and his own wear-and-tear.
PLAY OF THE GAME
Let’s give that nod to Adams’ long touchdown run. It has become something of a weekly feature. In this instance, the left side of Notre Dame’s offensive line opened up quite a hole, the workhorse shed one tackler, and it was off to the races.
HONORABLE MENTION PLAY OF THE GAME
On the third quarter’s third play, North Carolina quarterback Chazz Surratt dropped back from his own 21-yard line, looking for a quick route to convert a third-and-four. He thought he saw an option.
Instead, Irish sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara batted the pass into the air with his right hand, located it above his head and pulled in the interception. Since Surratt made a tackle after a five-yard return to prevent a touchdown, Okwara’s first career interception may not make every highlight reel, but the athleticism displayed deserves that showcasing. (See the 1:00 minute mark of this video.)
TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
If the Tar Heels had simply lined up Surratt directly behind his center and plunged forward just before halftime, they could have gotten the ball to start the second half down a mere touchdown. Instead, North Carolina attempted a long pass out of the shotgun. Notre Dame sophomore safety Jalen Elliott could not track down Surratt’s overthrown pass. Tar Heels disaster seemingly averted. North Carolina coach Larry Fedora had other plans in mind.
On second down, they lined up in shotgun again. This time, they opted to try a running play. Perhaps the Tar Heels offensive line was unaware time remained on the clock, because it hardly tried to block Irish junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery or senior defensive end Jay Hayes. The two wrapped up running back Jordon Brown in the end zone with no doubt whatsoever he had returned to the goal line.
“We threw the ball down the field,” Fedora said. “We thought we could get a double move on the guy and we didn’t.
“Then what I wanted to do was get out of the half without any problems. We were going to run a basic zone play and we turned some guys loose and they hit us in the backfield.”
It may have been a terrible play call, but the North Carolina offensive line also should have blocked better. The two-point safety returned Notre Dame’s lead to two possessions.
If that did not deflate the Tar Heels entirely, Okwara taking away the ball to start the second half certainly did.
OVERLOOKED POINT OF THE GAME
The Irish began a late first-quarter drive at their own 20-yard line. Seven plays in, they had advanced to just past midfield, facing a fourth-and-one. A drive earlier, in the exact same situation, a Book quarterback sneak did not come near gaining the needed yardage, yet Kelly doubled down on the fourth-down attempts, going for it again.
Book completed a crossing route to Notre Dame junior tight end Alizé Mack. With the yards Mack gained after the initial catch, the 13 yards not only notched the first down but also pushed the Irish that much further into North Carolina territory.
It took another seven plays for Book to connect with Smith for the afternoon’s first score. By then the fourth-down conversion was already just a piece of a long drive. It was that call, though, that kept the drive alive.
More than reflecting an aggressive philosophy in agreement with analytics, the two early fourth-down attempts showed a lack of respect for the Tar Heels offense. Frankly speaking, that dismissiveness was warranted, considering North Carolina gained an average of 3.8 yards per play.
“The sense that I got was that we were going to be stingy defensively today and I am very confident in our offense,” Kelly said.
PLAYER OF THE GAME
Rather than a player, how about a unit? How about a position group long-expected to be a debilitating weakness in 2017 but has instead become a spot of distinct strength? How about the Notre Dame defensive line?
Okwara’s interception and the Tillery/Hayes safety were but the most notable highlights. Sophomore defensive end Daelin Hayes (no relation) also recorded a sack and two quarterback hurries. Tillery added two more quarterback hurries and Jay Hayes pressured Surratt once more, as well.
The Irish defensive front controlled the point of attack all afternoon. A month ago, predicting that would have elicited only laughter. Now, it is a reality and one that sets up the entire Notre Dame defense for continued success.
STAT OF THE GAME
The Irish entered the weekend having converted all 22 of their trips into the red zone this season, 20 of those for touchdowns. Book’s pass to Smith continued that streak. A third-quarter field goal from junior kicker Justin Yoon pushed it to 24, though diluting the seven-point percentage.
Book ended the run with an interception from the 18-yard line in the third quarter. The Irish did not return to the red zone after that.
Without Wimbush’s rushing, converting in the red zone became a bit more difficult. In the season’s first five games, seven of those 20 touchdowns had been Wimbush rushes. As suitable as Book appeared in the passing game and as well as he managed the offense overall, losing that dynamic playmaking in the close quarters of the red zone was a noticeable drop-off between him and Wimbush.
14:54 — Notre Dame touchdown. Cam Smith six-yard reception from Ian Book. Justin Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 7, North Carolina 0. (15 plays, 80 yards, 4:57)
12:38 — Notre Dame touchdown. Josh Adams 73-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 14, North Carolina 0. (2 plays, 73 yards, 0:17)
1:50 — North Carolina touchdown. Anthony Ratliff-Williams 25-yard reception from Chazz Surratt. Freeman Jones PAT good. Notre Dame 14, North Carolina 7. (6 plays, 47 yards, 1:49)
0:28 — Notre Dame safety. Jay Hayes with a tackle for a one-yard loss. Notre Dame 16, North Carolina 7.
11:15 — Notre Dame field goal. Yoon from 29 yards. Notre Dame 19, North Carolina 7. (7 plays, 5 yards, 2:47)
6:41 — Notre Dame touchdown. Deon McIntosh 35-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 26, North Carolina 7. (2 plays, 46 yards, 0:28)
14:11 — North Carolina field goal. Freeman from 34 yards. Notre Dame 26, North Carolina 10. (16 plays, 56 yards, 4:31)
9:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. McIntosh 24-yard rush. Yoon PAT good. Notre Dame 33, North Carolina 10. (11 plays, 75 yards, 5:06)