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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Second half of schedule continues to look even more impressive

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The back half of Notre Dame’s schedule toughened its outlook over the weekend, suffering only one loss, and that came on the road against the No. 2 team in the country. Overall, Irish foes went 8-3 (not counting Notre Dame’s win at North Carolina) and are predicted to do so again this weekend, with Wake Forest joining the Irish in taking the week off.

Temple (3-3): The Owls may be buoyed by a 34-10 win at East Carolina, led by junior quarterback Logan Marchi’s 321 yards and two touchdowns, but the score is more a commentary on the Pirates’ defense than anything else. East Carolina ranks last in the country in yards allowed per game, making Marchi’s first career 300-yard game and Temple’s 523 total yards effects rather than causes.

Marchi did cut down on his turnover tendencies. After throwing seven interceptions over the past two weeks, he threw only one in the conference victory.

The Owls may make it two in a row, favored by 9.5 points against Connecticut this weekend (12 p.m. ET, ESPNews). A combined point total over/under of 62 hints at a 36-26 conclusion.

Georgia (6-0): The Bulldogs defense stifled Vanderbilt, holding the Commodores to 64 rushing yards while the Georgia rushing attack powered the offense with 423 yards en route to a 45-14 victory.

Senior running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb led the way, as usual, with 288 combined yards on 28 total carries. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm had an efficient day, as well, completing 7-of-11 passes for 102 yards and two touchdowns. Sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason returned from injury during mop-up time to complete all three of his pass attempts, gaining 24 yards.

It will continue to be a breeze for the Bulldogs, now hosting Missouri (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network). Favored by a whopping 30.5 points, Georgia very well may prevail by more than a 43-13 margin.

Boston College (2-4): The Eagles continue to play the ACC’s elite close and physically, but they just cannot come out on top. Despite not turning over the ball and committing only five penalties, Boston College fell to Virginia Tech 23-10.

Another of the ACC’s best welcomes the Eagles this week, with Louisville favored by 21.5 points (12:20 p.m. ET, ACC Network). The over/under of 57 indicates an unorthodox score of 39-18. Frankly, Boston College has played everyone relatively close so far — there is no reason to think that stops now.

Michigan State (4-1): When Notre Dame routed the Spartans a few weeks ago, it looked like nothing more than an easy evening against a rebuilding opponent. Michigan State may have rewritten that narrative with its 14-10 victory at Michigan on Saturday.

The Spartans got out to a 14-3 lead at halftime, an important note as the second half was marred by a miserable rainstorm. Junior quarterback Brian Lewerke led Michigan State both through the air and on the ground, gaining 61 yards and a score on 15 carries.

The Spartans now head to Minnesota (8 p.m. ET, Big Ten Network) to risk their undefeated Big Ten record. A 4.5-point favorite in a likely low-scoring night, Michigan State should come out on the right side of a 22-18 theoretical final.

Miami (OH) (2-4): The RedHawks season took a turn for the worse this weekend. Bowling Green is a MAC doormat, yet Miami lost to them 37-29. The RedHawks looked poised to escape with a close win before fumbling on the plus seven-yard line with less than two minutes left. A Falcons defender picked up the loose ball, and 93 yards later it was an eight-point margin with only 1:21 left.

The season is not yet lost, though, and Miami can right the ship at Kent State (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN3). Favored by 9.5 points, the RedHawks will undoubtedly be plenty motivated this weekend. Combining the over/under with the spread leads to a 26-17 final.

North Carolina (1-5): Notre Dame knocked the Tar Heels another step down a spiral staircase. The 33-10 Irish victory will likely be a larger margin of defeat than North Carolina experiences this weekend, but even a slim loss could be crippling for the Tar Heels. Hosting Virginia (3:30 p.m. ET, ACC Network) just may be their last best chance at another FBS-level victory this year.

Bookmakers do not expect them to manage that. North Carolina is a four-point home underdog against a lower-level ACC opponent. That should give a very clear idea of how far this season might sink. A 55.5-point over/under makes for a 30-25 ending.

USC (5-1): The Trojans cruised past Oregon State 38-10 in Beavers’ head coach Gary Andersen’s final game before resigning. USC junior quarterback Sam Darnold threw for 316 yards and three touchdowns on 23-of-35 passing.

This week will be much tougher on the Trojans. They host Utah (8 p.m. ET, ABC), likely the toughest competition for the Pac 12 South Division title. USC should not have too much trouble, favored by 13 points with a 54.5-point over/under, rounding to a 34-20 result.

North Carolina State (5-1): The Wolfpack has definitively arrived, topping Louisville 39-25 on Thursday to add a second victory over the ACC’s top teams, only awaiting a Nov. 4 matchup vs. Clemson.

North Carolina State gained 520 total yards and averaged 11.5 yards per pass attempt. For a team led by its defense, the offensive explosion was quite noticeable. Junior quarterback Ryan Finley led the way, completing 20-of-31 passes for 367 yards, connecting with three different receivers for at least 99 yards.

The momentum should continue at Pittsburgh (12 p.m. ET, ACC Network), where the Wolfpack is favored by a likely-too-slim 12 points with an over/under of 56. A 34-22 final sounds both too close and too generous for the Panthers.

Wake Forest (4-2): The Demon Deacons could not recover from going down 14-0 in the first quarter to Clemson, eventually falling behind 28-0 before closing the gap to 28-14. The Tigers clearly controlled the contest throughout, holding the time of possession edge 35:05 to 24:55 and rushing for 190 yards on a whopping 48 carries.

Florida State may be struggling this year, but by beating the Seminoles, Miami and quarterback Malik Rosier cleared most of their path to an undefeated ACC regular season. (Photo by Butch Dill/Getty Images)

Miami (FL) (4-0): The good news: The Hurricanes beat Florida State 24-20 thanks to a 23-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Malik Rosier with only six seconds left.

The obvious news: This may be a down year for the Seminoles, somewhat devaluing the win.

The forward-looking news: Miami has only one genuine ACC challenge left, Nov. 4 vs. Virginia Tech, meaning an undefeated conference slate and a regular season as a whole are both distinct possibilities.

The bad news: The Hurricanes lost leading running back Mark Walton for the season due to an injury.

They will look to first adjust to Walton’s absence against Georgia Tech this weekend (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC). Favored by just less than a touchdown, Miami will need to handle the triple-option to come out ahead in a supposed 29-23 contest.

Navy (5-0): For the second consecutive week, the Midshipmen needed to come from behind to preserve their undefeated season. This time, that comeback took until there were 15 seconds left, when junior quarterback Zach Abey completed a 16-yard touchdown pass to push Navy past Air Force 48-45. Abey accounted for four total touchdowns in the back-and-forth affair.

This week the Midshipmen may not be so lucky, heading to Memphis as four-point underdogs (3:45 p.m. ET, ESPNU). The 76-point over/under implies another offensive afternoon, perhaps 40-36 in the Tigers’ favor.

Stanford (4-2): The Cardinal slipped past Utah 23-20 in a tough, one might even say gritty, game. Junior running back Bryce Love managed only 152 yards on 20 carries, but his fourth-quarter, 68-yard touchdown run provided the difference.

Stanford turned to two quarterbacks. Keller Chryst completed 7-of-14 passes for 106 yards while K.J. Costello went 6-of-10 for 82 yards.

Whoever takes the snaps against Oregon this weekend (11 p.m. ET, ESPN) will undoubtedly rely on Love to match a 10.5-point spread in the Cardinal’s favor. A 36-25 final may make for a low-scoring #Pac12AfterDark, but that catchphrase exists for a reason. Something is bound to keep it interesting.

Got questions? It’s bye week. Let’s try to answer them.
Later this week, this space intends to run a mailbag. If you have any questions for it, drop them into the comments below. They do not need to be litigated there — and they just might “disappear” if they are — but good ones will be noted and hopefully answered by week’s end.

Monday Afternoon Leftovers: Notre Dame has already exceeded many of 2016’s totals

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Editor’s Note: Excuse the title change from the usual “Monday Morning Leftovers.” It’s bye week. These things happen.

Halfway through the season, Notre Dame has already exceeded its win total from all of a year ago. That may not mean as much when the preceding standard was four victories, but it is a sign of improvement, nonetheless. It is not the only one, either.

The Irish defense has already matched the 2016 total of 14 turnovers. The split in those takeaways varies a bit thus far, but the shift points to a more sustainable aggressiveness.

2016: eight interceptions, six fumbles recovered, eight fumbles forced.
2017 through six games: six interceptions, eight fumbles recovered, 10 fumbles forced.

Both interceptions and fumble recoveries can be dictated by the unpredictable bounce of an oblong ball. Being in the vicinity more often obviously helps those numbers, but it can still come down to chance. The increase in forced fumbles — and keep in mind, that increase has come in just half the number of games — indicates Notre Dame will continue to disrupt opposing offenses in the most effective manner possible.

“Our ability to give our offense additional possessions by takeaways, we’ve been starving in that area for a few years,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said Sunday. “To see our defense really transform itself from a group that really never came up with those plays to one that is thriving in that regard, that’s probably the biggest transformation.”

Continuing with some increased defensive marks of note, Notre Dame has 13 sacks through six games, led by junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery’s three. 2016’s total? All of 14.

Including those sacks, the Irish have made 35 tackles for loss this season, led by senior linebackers Drue Tranquill and Nyles Morgan with 4.5 apiece. Notre Dame did not register its 35th tackle for loss until its eighth game in 2016, amassing 61 total.

If removing that eighth game — a victory over Miami with 12 tackles for loss — the Irish brought down the ballcarrier behind the line of scrimmage only 49 times in 11 games. Again, this year’s defense is well ahead of that pace.

The offense has already outperformed its predecessor, as well.
The most obvious difference between Notre Dame in 2017 and its dismal 2016 is the emphasis on the running game. That change has been most felt, intentionally so, in the red zone.

“We’ve got really good players that we want to feature, and [it is a] commitment that I made to change the focus of the offense toward a much more physical approach to running the football,” Kelly said following the 52-17 topping of Miami (OH). “We’ve got really good players. So making sure that we utilized out strengths, and our strengths are we’ve got two guys on the left side that are going to playing on Sundays as well as a very good center, right guard, and our right tackles are coming along, as well.

“… Maybe I just woke up one morning, hit my head and came to my sense and said, let’s go to our strengths and run the football.”

In 12 games last year, the Irish rushed for 18 touchdowns.
Through six games this year, Notre Dame has rushed for 23 touchdowns.

That is playing to your strengths, indeed.

Junior running back Josh Adams has made it a habit to run away from defenders and into the end zone this year, a distinct shift for Notre Dame from a year ago. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Six of those ground scores have come from more than 30 yards away. The Irish have 16 total rushes of at least that length, as well as seven passes. Last year, only 25 plays in 12 games exceeded 30 yards, seven rushes and 18 passes.

That is not to say the receivers have not been routinely involved in the big plays this year. Kelly has given them distinct credit for some of the longer runs.

“The physicality does not stop at the offensive line,” he said earlier in October. “The physicality is all over the field. We’ve got guys at the wide receiver and tight end position that are sustaining blocks and are playing really physical all the way down the field. That says a lot about their commitment to what we’re doing.

“At times, you can get frustrated that you’re not getting the ball but these guys are really doing a great job.”

Junior running back Josh Adams has eight of those 30-plus yard carries as well as one reception in that category. Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush has four such rushes, and junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown has three receptions qualifying.

RELATED READING: Friday at 4: A 2014 win over Stanford helped create Notre Dame’s current offense

Another factor has changed from preseason expectations: The Irish schedule.
Notre Dame’s 2017 was always going to be split into two halves. The first would feature the unknown in a Georgia team with unproven potential, but otherwise be devoid of challenge. The second half would showcase two Pac-12 national title contenders.

Well, Stanford is out of the title race and USC cannot afford another loss if it wants to remain in it. Georgia, however, is in the thick of it, and Michigan State displayed some validity Saturday by upsetting Michigan on the road.

The emphasis here should echo Kelly’s sentiments from Sunday: The back half of this schedule is loaded, with five of the six opponents currently ranked. Of those five, though, the ACC duo may present more of a challenge than the Pac-12 pair. Few would have seen that coming before the season.

Do not be surprised at all if North Carolina State beats the Irish a week after Notre Dame outdoes the Trojans. If that occurs, do not mark it up as a “letdown” or a “trap game.” No. The Wolfpack just might be that good, and USC might be a step below.

Such is the flip that can occur in just six weeks.

With that in mind, a reminder: The polls are meaningless.
The first College Football Playoff committee ranking comes out Tuesday, Oct. 31, at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN. Until then, every top-25 poll mentioned is done so only to provide conversational fodder and offer some delineation between the contenders and the rest of the country.

The polls have no meaning, no consequence, no effect. They do not influence the committee, they do not change coaches’ game plans, they do not alter broadcast times.

Frankly, there is no reason to think North Carolina State is not better than the Trojans, even though the Associated Press ranks USC at No. 13 and the Wolfpack at No. 20. The beauty of college football is the Irish will provide a pertinent comparison point between the two teams by the end of the month.

Maybe Will Fuller was the secret ingredient to 2015’s success.
Fuller left Notre Dame for the NFL after his junior season, depriving quarterback DeShone Kizer of his preferred target in 2016. In only his second game of this season, Fuller caught two passes for 57 yards and two touchdowns last night in a loss to the Kansas City Chiefs. The Houston Texans receiver now has four touchdowns this season. To reiterate, Fuller has played two games this year.

Kizer, meanwhile, was pulled after his second turnover as the Cleveland Browns lost to the New York Jets yesterday.

Got questions? It’s bye week. Let’s try to answer them.
Later this week, this space intends to run a mailbag. If you have any questions for it, drop them into the comments below. They do not need to be litigated there — and they just might “disappear” if they are — but good ones will be noted and hopefully answered by week’s end.

Sunday Notre Dame Notebook: Recover, relax, recruit and ready for USC (and Navy)

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With a week off before hosting USC, Notre Dame’s to-do list is filled with the obvious: Get healthy, rest up and get ready for one of the more difficult second halves of the season in the country.

The most pressing piece of that first category — health and recovery — junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush should take first-team snaps in practice Wednesday, per Irish coach Brian Kelly. Notre Dame has today (Sunday) off, as usual, and will spend Monday only in the weight and film rooms. With Tuesday an added off day thanks to the bye week, Kelly expects the number of days with such a focus on rehab to be enough for Wimbush.

To be clear, in no uncertain terms, with no ambiguity, Wimbush remains the Irish starting quarterback despite sophomore Ian Book leading the way to a 33-10 victory at North Carolina on Saturday.

“Brandon is our starter,” Kelly said. “Ian did a great job coming in while Brandon wasn’t healthy, but no.”

Senior right guard Alex Bars suffered a “low-grade ankle sprain” against the Tar Heels. That should be the only other injury Notre Dame may worry about in two weeks. Naturally, the Irish will spend plenty of time these next two weeks tending to the ankles of junior running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams and sophomore running back Tony Jones. None of them are 100 percent, but all could and would play if Notre Dame had a game scheduled this week, Kelly said.

“We also need to get some guys that are banged up some rest and rehab,” he said. “That’s very, very important as we get ready for this big push for the next six weeks.”

When in practice this week, the Irish defense will focus on more than USC. As has been the case in many years during Kelly’s tenure, Notre Dame will spend some of the bye week getting introduced to the triple-option scheme run by Navy, even though the Irish will not see that attack until Nov. 18.

Some of the coaching staff will hit the road Tuesday to begin recruiting for a few days, while the rest of the staff will do so Thursday after practice. The players will then have the weekend off, an undoubtedly welcomed respite considering this week is mid-terms week, making it only a physical bye in its own way.

Upon return, Kelly knows what awaits Notre Dame in the second half of the season. If looking at the Associated Press top 25 poll released today, five of the six coming Irish opponents are ranked: in chronological order — USC at No. 13, North Carolina State at No. 20, unranked Wake Forest, No. 11 Miami, No. 25 Navy and No. 23 Stanford. The Irish are ranked No. 16 in the inconsequential poll, while previous opponents Georgia (No. 4) and Michigan State (No. 21) make it seven foes on the listing.

“We’ve got to coach better and our players have to play better in the second half because we’re going to have five of our next six opponents ranked currently,” Kelly said. “Pleased with where we are at the halfway point, but this is not where we want as a destination.”

Things We Learned: Notre Dame can turn to Book, though may prefer not to

Associated Press
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For at least a day, No. 21 Notre Dame could survive without junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Testing that fate long-term might be a riskier proposition.

Irish sophomore quarterback Ian Book started in Wimbush’s stead during Notre Dame’s 33-10 victory at North Carolina on Saturday. Book completed only 17-of-31 passes for 146 yards and one score, also throwing two interceptions and rushing for 47 yards on 11 carries.

Those statistics certainly qualify as underwhelming — especially the 4.7 yards per passing attempt, compared to Wimbush’s 5.9 to date — but Book did not need to put up dazzling numbers to qualify as a one-off success. He needed to avoid crippling mistakes, he needed to keep the Irish offense on-task and he needed to make a play here or there. That much, Book did.

“He’s a very confident kid,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said. “He overthrew a couple of balls here and there. For a first start, I was really pleased with what he did today. To win on the road is hard to do. The ideal situation is to start at home in a more comfortable environment but I thought he went in and did some really good things for us.”

Even the two interceptions were tolerable. One came from Notre Dame’s own three-yard line. Without many options available, Book heaved a pass downfield for junior receiver Chris Finke. Slightly overthrown, it gifted possession to the Tar Heels at the 47-yard line. Essentially, it served as a punt without the risk of a punt block in the end zone.

The other pick came when Book overthrew fifth-year tight end Durham Smythe. That mistake cost the Irish a red zone opportunity, but it may have been the result of Book’s inexperience more than anything else. To the untrained eye, it looked as if Book expected Smythe to run the route a yard deeper, but Smythe gauged the coverage slightly differently.

Neither turnover qualified as “crippling.”

Wimbush should be back against USC in two weeks. (More on that, and other injuries, in a bit.) Presuming that is the case, Book served the spot starter role well. More than that, though, he showed the potential to carry the load down the line.

His arm is not as strong as Wimbush’s, few are, but it was more than able to get passes into tight windows. Some of that can be attributed to accuracy, a rare sight around the Irish offense with Wimbush at the helm.

Notre Dame frequently got sophomore quarterback and first-time starter Ian Book out of the pocket Saturday to simplify the reads in front of him as well as to play to Book’s strengths as a mobile passer. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Book lacks Wimbush’s big-play running ability, but he was mobile enough to throw on the move. That skill, in fact, played a part in Notre Dame’s 25 first-half passes. From the outset, Kelly wanted to play to Book’s strengths.

“We wanted to mostly take advantage of some of the play-action opportunities to complement our run game,” Kelly said. “It was going to be a run-centered game for us. Getting some high-percentage throws, on the move, where he didn’t have to sit in the pocket and do progression reads across the field.”

The first touchdown pass of sophomore quarterback Ian Book’s career was also the first touchdown at Notre Dame for fifth-year senior and Arizona State graduate transfer Cam Smith. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Those play calls served to simplify Book’s reads and to tilt the field toward his favor. Without Wimbush’s speed, Book’s rollouts-turned-scrambles were never going to gain 30-plus yards, but he frequently took advantage of open space available. Most notably, he ran for nine yards on a second-and-10 from the North Carolina 20-yard-line at the end of the first quarter. Two plays later, Book found fifth-year receiver Cam Smith for the first score of the day. That scramble kept the drive moving forward, preventing a worrisome third-and-long.

Book worked through his progressions well. He knew where his safety valves were. With more time, those skills would only grow, and he would better understand what Smythe sees in a defense.

Book did not play so well Notre Dame hopes he gets that playing time in the near future, but he did play well enough the Irish won’t need to panic should that situation arise.

Wimbush should be back after the bye week. As should everybody else.
Kelly claimed he debated playing Wimbush up until Saturday. The starter looked good Friday, very much wanting to play, but on game day, Kelly did not see the requisite “bounce” in Wimbush’s step as he recovers from a grade one right foot strain.

“Today he just didn’t have it in him,” Kelly said. “He just didn’t feel great. He didn’t have any bounce. Yesterday he looked good in our walk-through preparation and he had a lot of energy. It went back-and-forth.”

In other words, Wimbush should be good-to-go with a bye week’s rest ahead of him. The same goes for junior running back Dexter Williams. He did not even dress for the contest, following the same timeline as sophomore running back Tony Jones did a week ago coming back from an ankle sprain Kelly has compared to Williams’ now.

Junior running back Josh Adams had another short day, partly due to dehydration. Junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown also saw limited action thanks to cramping. Anyone worried about senior linebacker Nyles Morgan need not do so: The captain suffered a stinger in the third quarter and was back to full health by game’s end. None of those should linger past, well, past Sunday, frankly.

Senior right tackle Alex Bars suffered an ankle sprain, but Kelly made it clear it was not a high ankle sprain. Traditionally speaking, that is considered a good thing.

But if Bars is out, Hunter Bivin will not be the answer.
When Bars first went to the sideline, fifth-year offensive lineman Hunter Bivin stepped in at right guard, as would be expected. Then Bivin committed two penalties within three plays to knock Notre Dame out of an ideal first-and-goal from the four-yard line. His day ended.

The Irish shifted sophomore Tommy Kraemer from his timeshare at right tackle, allowing freshman Robert Hainsey to take over those duties full-time.

This personnel development is worth remembering for two reasons: Obviously, if the ankle plagues Bars down the line, this will be the alignment deployed. Beyond that, it speaks to Hainsey’s rapid development. If he could not be counted on at right tackle, Kraemer would need to remain there. Bivin would then be the best option available at right guard, no matter how inconsistent he may be.

In the long-run, an argument can be made Kraemer’s best future is at guard. Hainsey’s emergence makes that more of a possibility, one that just might bring the beginnings of a consideration of a smile to Notre Dame offensive line coach Harry Hiestand’s face.

Hey, look, that’s Alizé Mack chipping away.

Junior tight end Alizé Mack moved the chains on four of his six catches during Notre Dame’s 33-10 win at North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

The junior tight end was targeted 10 times, catching six of them for 38 yards. Just more than three dozen yards and no scores may sound like another underwhelming stat line. That would be too simple of a reading, and an incorrect one.

Four of Mack’s catches yielded first downs, including a fourth-and-one conversion and a third-and-two conversion. This is the consistent production expected of a tight end presenting the target Mack does.

Entering the weekend, he had caught six passes of fewer than 15 yards. Those receptions hold merit, much merit. At North Carolina, Mack matched that total.

Chunks of 32 or 33 yards may be preferable, but they cannot be counted on. Gains of seven, six and even three yards are the plays that keep drives moving down the field.

All good things must end.

CHAPEL HILL, NC – OCTOBER 07: Nick Polino #58 of the North Carolina Tar Heels dives for a fumble forced by Te’von Coney #4 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish during the game at Kenan Stadium on October 7, 2017 in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Two stats had become the preferred methods of illustrating just how different these Irish are from last year’s version. Notre Dame had scored on all 22 trips to the red zone this season, and the Irish had scored touchdowns after 10 of 11 forced turnovers, the one exception coming less than a minute before halftime.

Both storylines became cluttered this weekend. A trip to the red zone resulted in one of Book’s aforementioned interceptions. That stat line now stands at scores on 24 of 25 trips with 21 touchdowns. It remains hardly something to scoff at.

Of the three Tar Heels turnovers, only one resulted in any Notre Dame points, and that was just a field goal. Nonetheless, the Irish have now outscored their opponents off turnovers by a whopping margin of 73-10.

C.J. Holmes joins the running back fray.

Junior running back Deon McIntosh played a key part in Notre Dame maintaining possession for 12:16 of the fourth quarter. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

If sophomore running back Deon McIntosh continues to turn mop-up duty into a starring role — taking 12 carries for 124 yards and two touchdowns against the Tar Heels — then freshman C.J. Holmes will be stuck as the fifth running back on Notre Dame’s depth chart. However, a week ago that designation would have been nominal only. Now, it is a sincere description.

Holmes took eight carries for 32 yards in his first collegiate action, also participating on at least three of the Irish kicking units.

With Adams, Williams and Jones all tending to battered ankles already, Holmes may be needed yet this year, fifth running back or not.

Notre Dame stifles North Carolina throughout 33-10 victory

Associated Press
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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.

SCORING SUMMARY
Second Quarter
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.

Third Quarter
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)

Fourth Quarter
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)