That the Irish took the Tar Heels’ best shot and still ended up victorious is worth something. Just what that something is might be defined as the games roll on.
If the Irish continue to win, the victory over North Carolina will be one of the speed bumps on the road to a special season. If Notre Dame struggles this weekend against Florida State and stumbles again, it’ll serve as a harbinger of things to come.
But that’s life in football. You’re only as good as your next game, and every datapoint will be used for or against you, depending on the argument.
With a date in Tallahassee set for Saturday, there’s little time to look back and dwell on a closer-than-necessary victory. But let’s do it anyway.
Here’s the good, bad and ugly from Notre Dame’s 50-43 victory.
Tarean Folston. It sure was nice seeing a running back take over a football game. Folston was just what the doctor ordered, especially considering Golson’s not-so-steady presence with the football.
That Folston was able to get the ground game going when everybody in the stadium knew it was coming is a good sign. While I was less than impressed early by the work the offensive line did, Folston meshed well with the front five when crunch time came around, and when the ground game needed it they came through.
My favorite part of Saturday? Check the play-by-play for Folston’s impressive work icing the game after the questionable roughing the snapper penalty.
Drive One: Three carries for 21 yards. Two catches for 13 yards and a touchdown.
Drive Two: Seven carries for 43 yards and a touchdown.
With 71 yards in the air and 98 on the ground, Folston was well deserving of the game ball.
Will Fuller. Against a defense that’s one of the worst statistical units in the country, you had to expect a big day from Notre Dame’s big-play receiver. And Fuller delivered, making seven catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns.
With the sophomore the team’s No. 1 receiver without DaVaris Daniels, Fuller even paid tribute to his missing teammate with Daniels’ three-fingered salute, straight from The Hunger Games.
Through six games, Fuller has 504 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. It doesn’t take a math major to see that he’s just on pace for a 1,000 yard regular season with prolific touchdown numbers as well. When asked if Fuller has what it takes to be the team’s No. 1 receiver, Brian Kelly explained that he’s capable of being dynamic, though still a work in progress.
“I think right now he’s kind of emerging as that big play guy,” Kelly said. “I think we’re looking toward him a lot more. But we have other pieces that really complement him as well. I don’t think he can stand out there by himself, you know what I mean? I don’t think you could say that’s just one guy, but he definitely possesses the skills that have put him in the position that he is right now.”
Cole Luke. Just a few days after KeiVarae Russell made it official that he wouldn’t play a down with this football team, Cole Luke went out and made another huge play. His critical interception flipped the momentum of the game and was the one bad play North Carolina quarterback Marquis Williams seemed to make.
Notre Dame’s Special Teams. With one of college football’s most dangerous return men on the docket, the Irish shut Ryan Switzer down, holding him to -13 yards on three returns. Add to that six touchbacks on eight kickoffs for Kyle Brindza, a gigantic blocked extra point by Jarron Jones and a great two-point conversion play to Ben Koyack and it was a heckuva day.
The Red Zone. Want to know why Notre Dame came away with a victory? It’s because it cashed in every scoring opportunity for a touchdown. After struggling the past couple weeks in the red zone, the Irish were lethal. A six for six afternoon was needed, and it’s the big reason why Notre Dame was capable of closing the early gap.
It’s nice to see some balance in the red zone, with Greg Bryant, Cam McDaniel and Folston getting rushing touchdowns while the Irish also cashed in with Fuller and Folston in the air as well. A prolific afternoon inside the 20 helped the Irish escape 6-0.
* How fun is it to see the Jet Sweep start to get some love in the Notre Dame playbook? After watching C.J. Prosise break a big one against Stanford, Prosise and Amir Carlisle both picked up a dozen yards an attempt. It’s good to see the slot receiver continue to make plays of importance.
* Let’s give credit to Marquise Williams here. After splitting series with highly-touted youngster Mitch Trubisky, Williams took every snap — and will likely keep it that way — after lighting up the Irish both on the ground and through the air. How good was Williams? He threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns, ran for 132 yards and a touchdown and caught a 23-yard touchdown pass as well.
Heckuva day in a losing effort.
* Max Redfield & Elijah Shumate combined for 18 tackles on the afternoon. That’s a productive day for two guys who will have a lot of attention heaped on them with Austin Collinsworth likely lost for quite some time.
* Sheldon Day showed up in the stat sheet as only having one assisted tackle. But he was an absolute maniac in the trenches, getting held at least a half-dozen times on plays that should’ve drawn flags.
* A big forced fumble to go along with Joe Schmidt‘s career-high 11 tackles. He might have missed a few uncharacteristically, but that’s because Schmidt should’ve been on a ventilator after playing nearly 90 plays.
Up-tempo defense. The Irish looked lost at times against North Carolina’s up-tempo attack. It was a matchup that worried Brian Kelly and it didn’t take long for us to figure out why.
Kelly spoke quite candidly about the challenges that were presented and what went wrong.
“We’re inexperienced in a number of areas, and if the circumstances played out, we could be put into that kind of situation,” Kelly said, when asked about the defensive struggles after being so stout for the season’s first five games. “Here are the ingredients for that. A team that runs an up‑tempo offense that can run up to 100 plays. I think they had 91. We’re very thin on the back end, as evidenced late in the game. We were tired and tackled poorly. That’s something that concerns us.
“Playing very fast with some young kids, not being able to get off the field on third down with our base personnel. We weren’t able to situational substitute, so we weren’t as good on third down, another key ingredient with playing a team like North Carolina.”
Tackling defense. This comes with being on the football field for over 80 plays (Brian Kelly charted 91, the official books have it as 84). Either way, Notre Dame was sloppy tackling, missed more than its fair share of tackles-for-loss, and failed to contain a quarterback that everybody knew was going to be a runner just as much as a passer.
Jaylon Smith missed his share of stops. So did Joe Schmidt. Matthias Farley, after looking very locked in this season, reverted back to some sloppy habits.
Let’s not make this into something bigger than it is, but heading into a game against an elite athletic unit, the Irish are going to need to sharpen up.
Losing third down on defense. At this point it feels a little bit like we’re dragging the defense through the mud, but the failure for the Irish to win third down after putting the Tar Heels into third-and-long situations was what kept North Carolina in the football game.
Without having the time to bring sub-packages in, the Irish were forced to use their base defense to play on third down. It was likely a big reason why North Carolina’s mediocre offensive line was able to keep Notre Dame from getting a single sack on Williams.
Everett Golson’s turnovers. He knows it. We know it. The coaches know it. Golson just cannot keep this pace of inconsistency up, and the three turnovers turned into 21 North Carolina points.
When asked if this was a trend, Kelly talked about the specifics of how the team deals with mistakes like these.
“Let’s look at each one of them,” Kelly said. “The first one he’s stepping up in the pocket and it’s a little bit of everything. The route is too deep. The route should be broke at 12, it broke at 15, so he has to hitch again. He hitches again, he gets the ball batted, it’s a fumble, turnover.
“The second one, the box is emptied out, it’s probably a mistake that Everett doesn’t normally make, pick six. Third one he’s going down, ball gets batted out, hand on the ball.
“Every single one of them is analyzed, overanalyzed, and we look at them and we go back to work and find ways to secure the football and do a better job. We don’t take any of them for granted. We look at ways to improve each time and look at each one of them as opportunities to eradicate them.”
There were some fans online that seemed ready to give Malik Zaire an opportunity to show what he can do. That’s ridiculous. Golson is the school’s most prolific winner, has thrown 16 touchdowns to just four interceptions, and is still the Irish’s best offensive player.
But he needs to stop making critical mistakes and get back to being himself.
Austin Collinsworth’s injury. The veteran safety will get an MRI, but is likely lost for an extended amount of time, leaving the safety position in a difficult spot. Already pronounced out for Saturday in Tallahassee, there’s a chance Collinsworth has played his last snap in South Bend.
(Though there’s also a chance he could be eligible for a sixth-year of competition.)
We tackled what the safety position will look like without Collinsworth during Saturday’s Five Things, but the depth at safety is very thin and it’s going to be on the shoulders of Elijah Shumate and Max Redfield to get it done.
Winning bad. The 43-points Notre Dame gave up are the most in a victory in school history, passing the 42 Lou Holtz’s 1991 squad gave up to Hawaii. But for as frustrating as it seemed to be, five years into the program, the Irish were able to right the ship and come out with a win.
“I think where we’re at right now is that we’ve won 35 of our last 43 games,” Kelly said. “I think that just says it right there. I mean, these guys believe they’re going to win. When you have that built into your program, guys believe they’re going to find ways to win. We were down 14 points, there’s no panic. We’re down late. I think these last two games we were down in the fourth quarter, and we won the football game. We don’t want that to happen, but I think the difference is they believe they’re going to win, and that’s something that you build into your program.”
Well said, coach.
Now get it done in Tallahassee, and nobody will remember you struggled with North Carolina.