Pregame Six Pack: Staring down Stanford

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The Stanford Cardinal have quite a feather in their cap. Entering the season, they’re the only team in college football history to defeat Notre Dame and USC in three consecutive seasons. David Shaw’s squad has already extended their streak against the Trojans. They’ll look to do the same against the Irish, running their record winning streak against Notre Dame to four straight.

Ranked 17th in the country, there’s plenty to like about Stanford. Namely, a physical defense that’s beaten up teams at the line of scrimmage. After whipping Notre Dame up front the last two seasons, don’t think Irish head coach Brian Kelly isn’t excited to see how his team measures up this season. When asked Thursday afternoon whether he likes his team’s toughness, and their ability to get down and dirty in a game like this, Kelly was unequivocal.

“I do,” Kelly said. “I think we’ll be able to go in there and play the kind of game we want to play. We’ve exhibited the kind of signs that would lead me to believe that we can play that kind of football.”

We’ll be in South Bend for the game this weekend, where ESPN has already camped out with their College GameDay set, their first visit to Notre Dame since the 2005 Notre Dame-USC game. It’s just another datapoint that the Irish are well on their way back from the dead, dusting themselves off after plenty of dirt was kicked on top of them the past few years.

With a 3:30 p.m. ET kickoff set for NBC — and a special NFL Films’ produced behind the scenes look at the Irish called Onward Notre Dame: South Bend to Soldier Field — let’s empty out the folder with another pregame six pack. As usual, here are six tidbits, fun facts, leftovers, or miscellaneous musings to get you ready for Saturday’s game between the No. 7 Fighting Irish and the No. 17 Stanford Cardinal.

***

The Irish have reason to be confident that the defense will win the battle at the line of scrimmage.

Notre Dame’s offensive line will need to play its very best football to establish a running game against the Cardinal. But there’s reason to believe that the Irish defensive front should control the line of scrimmage against the Cardinal’s rebuilt offensive line. Gone are All-Americans David DeCastro and Jonathan Martin, taken in the first and second round of the NFL Draft respectively.  The Cardinal have reshuffled the line, carrying over just two starters that played the same position last year, with center Sam Schwartzstein and right tackle Cameron Fleming back. But Stanford has kicked guard David Yankey outside from left guard to left tackle, and have two other veterans starting. The Cardinal also play some talented youngsters, many of whom were on the Irish recruiting radar. Notre Dame fans will get their first looks at Joshua Garnett, Kyle Murphy, and Andrus Peat. All three had early Irish offers and both Peat and Garnett gave the Irish an official visit.

The Cardinal have only given up five sacks this season, but they’ve struggled to kickstart the running game. After running for 210 yards a game at a 5.29 yards per carry clip, the Cardinal are down almost a yard a carry (4.42) while being ranked 74th in the country with 155 yards a game.

A year after getting pushed around up front, Brian Kelly was asked on his radio show what the difference would be between this defensive line and the group that got pushed around last year in Palo Alto.

“Personnel. We were playing EJ, SC, and Chase Hounshell. We were a little beat up,” Kelly said. “Kapron (Lewis-Moore) didn’t play. We’re a different front,and we’re physically stronger. We’re a better football team. So let’s see how that plays out Saturday because we’re going to play really well against an ouutstanding football team, but we’re better up front.”

***

The Irish offensive line will need to improve upon their breakthrough performance against Miami with an even better game against Stanford’s front seven. 

Give credit to Notre Dame’s offensive line, who absolutely killed Miami’s will last weekend in the second half, running the ball through the Hurricanes by carrying the ball almost exclusively for the entire second half. But if Notre Dame wants to win the game this Saturday afternoon, they’ll need to step their game up against a Stanford front that’s absolutely dominated Notre Dame’s offensive line.

How bad has it been? Consider that Brian Kelly’s Irish haven’t been able to average even two yards a carry. In 2010, Jim Harbaugh’s defense stuffed the Irish running game, holding the Irish to just 44 yards on 23 carries, with Jonas Gray’s 11-yard run the lone gain over 10-yards. Dayne Crist was kept in check while the Cardinal routinely dropped seven and eight men in coverage. Last year, the Cardinal (and the horrific turf inside Stanford Stadium), held the Irish to just 57 yards on 31 carries, with the long being a 17-yard scramble by Andrew Hendrix.

Stanford’s 3-4 defense, a group built with big, physical players in a similar mold of the Irish, have kept up the same lofty performance as last season, holding opponents to just 77 yards a game and a measly 2.66 yards per carry. With young quarterback Everett Golson still learning on the job, CSNChicago’s JJ Stankevitz writes about the job the Irish offensive line does to help their young quarterback make the correct reads.

“It takes a lot off my plate, to be honest,” Golson said on Saturday. “Going back to seeing those zones and stuff like that, I guess it feels good to me to know that if I didn’t see it, they got my back.”

Every offensive line acts as a safety net for its quarterback. But having a senior-laden offensive line for a greenhorn quarterback takes on added importance, even if Golson’s learning quickly.

“Communicating, anything we can give him is going to help him and it’s going to help us and it’s going to help the whole offense,” tackle Christian Lombard said. “(Offensive line coach Harry Hiestand) always says see a little, see a lot, so if you see something say something and it’s going to trickle down to everyone.

“Our combination blocks, calling out linebackers when we got an overloaded box so he can check out of things — there’s tons of different things, I could go on and on, but he’s picking up really fast,” center Braxston Cave added. “And it’s not even us as much now having to tell him anything, and he’s making the calls on his own.”

The Irish coaching staff struggled with adjustments when the Cardinal revealed a few wrinkles that they hadn’t shown on tape. With two head-to-head match-ups and five games of tape from this season, Stanford won’t be able to reveal any completely unknown wrinkles, but that doesn’t mean the Irish won’t try to be ready for them.

“There will always be that unexpected look that you get and we’ll make those adjustments and we’ve been able to communicate them very well on the sideline,” Kelly said. “We feel like we’re better at what we’re doing at this point and that we can continue to do that, regardless of what the look is. That’s just moving forward as an offense.”

***

Theo Riddick is back and healthy for the Irish running backs. But it’s time to see a redistribution of carries at the position. 

Through five games, Theo Riddick is carrying the load running the ball, with almost twice as many touches as Cierre Wood and over half of the carries of the three main running backs. Sure, these numbers are skewed — Wood sat the season’s first two games — but with the running back position solidified, it’s time to take a hard look at how the carries get distributed moving forward.

Riddick has done everything this coaching staff has asked of him, moving to wide receiver when there was little depth at the slot position, and then back to tailback for his final season. And while his versatility makes him an important cog in the Notre Dame offense, the stats are starting to show him the least effective of the team’s three running backs.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the Irish’s running backs through five games.

Notre Dame Running Backs:
Theo Riddick: 68 carries for 263 yards. 3.9 Avg. 3 TD. Long Run: 17
Cierre Wood: 35 carries for 213 yards. 6.1 Avg. 2 TD. Long Run: 37
George Atkinson: 29 carries for 269 yards. 9.3 Avg. 3 TD. Long Run: 56
Cam McDaniel: 20 carries for 114 yards. 5.7 Avg. 1 TD. Long Run: 19

While Riddick didn’t miss a rep this week as he recovered from a minor elbow injury, Kelly talked about the challenge of getting the ball to his healthy stable of running backs.

“We’ve got three guys that we’re trying to get that balance,” Kelly said. “We struck it a little better last week, but it’s something that we’re constantly keeping an eye on and keeping those guys fresh and attacking defenses with three really good runners. We all know Cam (McDaniel) is a very good running back, but we just don’t have enough footballs for them.”

It’s tough to ignore the statistical differences that are growing by the week, especially considering the only game Riddick averaged more than five yards a carry in was against Navy, when he ran for 107 yards on 19 carries. (In the same game, Atkinson ran for 99 yards on just nine touches.)

If the Irish are going to get more production from the position, they’ll likely need to recalibrate the touches.

***

The Irish defense needs to make things miserable on quarterback Josh Nunes. 

Before Josh Nunes put together a sterling performance against Arizona last weekend, there wasn’t much positive to say about the man who took over for Andrew Luck. Nunes, a 6-foot-4, 225-pound junior from Upland, California, starting for the first time after backing up the NFL Draft’s top pick, played mediocre football through the season’s first four games, revealing a weak spot for the Cardinal offense.

Against San Jose State, Nunes completed 16 of 26 passes for just 125 yards and one touchdown. He was a little bit more prolific against Duke, completing 16 of 30 for 275 and three touchdowns with one interception. He struggled against USC while still leading the Cardinal to victory, completing less than half his 32 throws for 215 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions. And in the Cardinal’s loss to Washington, Nunes was harassed constantly, completing just 18 of 37 throws for 170 yards and one interception.

There isn’t a bad defense in that group, with San Jose State leading that group statistically in total defense at 18th and Duke rounding it out at 52nd. But Nunes is in for his biggest challenge of the year against the Irish defense.

The Irish rank among the top-20 defenses in nine different categories: scoring defense, red zone defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense, first down defense, interceptions, turnovers forced, rush defense and sacks. After Nunes struggled away from home when the Huskies sprung the upset on Stanford, expect Notre Dame to try and make life miserable for the first-time starter.

“This game will be our biggest challenge. Notre Dame is big and physical,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “When their linebackers blitz, they hit it hard. This will be a big test for us. What helps our pass protection is our running game. Having play-action helps slow down the pass rush.”

With Ty Montgomery, one of the team’s best receivers, out for the game on Saturday, Nunes is short one valuable weapon as he tries to put together a solid road performance. If he does, the Cardinal have a chance. If he doesn’t? It’ll be a long day for the Stanford offense.

***

The spotlight will once again be on Everett Golson. Can he play better at home this time around? 

A week after playing well enough to hush any brewing quarterback controversy, Everett Golson will face the biggest test of his young career. Stanford’s defense — a group that’s confused Notre Dame quarterbacks for the past two seasons — will now take aim at the least experienced member of the Irish offense as Golson tries to lead the Irish to victory while still learning on the job.

Whether it was Dayne Crist, Tommy Rees, or Andrew Hendrix, Stanford’s defense has confused Notre Dame quarterbacks for the past two seasons. They’ve done everything from dropping eight into coverage to exotic blitz packages. Golson will need to confidently pilot the Irish offense if Notre Dame wants to exit the weekend undefeated.

Using Golson in the running game last week was the first part of making the game easier for the young starting quarterback. Now it’s up to the sophomore to continue to grow at the position, while also understanding his role as the facilitator of an offense that’ll help the team win just by not making crucial mistakes.

“We’re in the process with Everett that every day we’re building trust,” Kelly said. “We want somebody who is smiling and having fun and enjoying it, but also disciplined and getting with us in the right place and make the right choices. I guess the easiest way is we’re working hard towards meeting in the middle. That’s getting there. We’re getting there.”

Golson might have earned some confidence from the coaching staff running the two-minute drill at the end of the first half against Miami. While the drive didn’t net any points after Kyle Brindza’s field goal attempt missed wide right, Golson completed four straight passes for 48 yards as he led the Irish into field goal range.

“It was very important and we were hoping to get that opportunity,” Kelly said of Golson’s two-minute drill. “We thought he managed it very well, maybe too aggressively. We didn’t want the ball thrown to the wild field on that last throw where there was one second left on the clock, maybe if we were at a different stadium that one second is not there.  He was aggressive, but I thought he made strides in being comfortable out there and really doing the right things necessary to be effective.”

You could make the argument that Notre Dame didn’t need to break Golson’s running abilities out last week to beat Miami. But the ability to show the ability to both run the ball and move the Irish offense at a brisk pace should give Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason a few extra things to prepare for.

***

With inclement weather on its way to South Bend, this game could be an old-school, heavy-weight title bout.

The weather forecast looks rather ominous for South Bend Saturday afternoon. With thunderstorms possible and rain likely, this might turn into a rough and tumble brawl, something Brian Kelly wouldn’t half mind.

“The theme all week has been we’re going to be in for a physical, hard-nosed, four quarters of one of those good old-fashioned backyard brawls,” Kelly said Thursday evening. “It’s going to be that kind of game. We got our guys thinking about that on Monday and it kept building through the week. That’s been the theme this week for our football team.”

That attitude wasn’t because of the long-term weather forecast, but rather because of the challenges Stanford presents. And for the first time in his time at Notre Dame, this is the exact type of battle the Irish are built to play in and win.

“It’s who we want to be. It’s how we want to play the game,” Kelly said. “We’ve tried to exert that physical presence, both on the offensive line and the defensive line. It’s who we’re shaping up to be. So for us to go into a boxing match… I want to go in there and slug away. That’s the demeanor we want our football team to take shape.”

To win on Saturday, the Irish will need to be solid in all three phases of the football game. They’ll need to establish a run game after failing to do so for two years against Stanford. They’ll need to get big-chunk plays in the pass game with Everett Golson, while protecting the football at all costs. The defense will need to relentlessly pursue Josh Nunes, all while trying to shut down running back Stepfan Taylor and keeping jumbo-sized tight ends Zach Ertz and Levine Toilolo in check. Special teams will also need consistency. Kyle Brindza needs to get back on track, while Ben Turk needs to finally find some consistency.

Another Saturday, another huge opportunity for Notre Dame. And with the national spotlight on South Bend, it’s time for the Irish to prove these first five games haven’t been a fluke.

Highlights: Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 32 — Irish RBs spur offense, Pyne finds downfield attack

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Notre Dame at North Carolina
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In his final two seasons at Notre Dame, Kyren Williams was one of the more complete backs in the country and certainly in recent Irish history. His durability, constant big-play threat and comfort as a receiver made him an offense all on his own.

It would be an overreaction to compare current Notre Dame sophomore running back Audric Estimé to Williams after just four games this season, even after Estimé took 17 carries for 134 yards and two touchdowns in Saturday’s 45-32 win at North Carolina. But what Estimé did was rare enough to elicit such a comparison, if for only this week.

During this Irish resurgence, beginning with the 2017 season, only four running backs have led the team in carries against a Power Five opponent and averaged the 7.9 yards per carry Estimé did. Williams did it once in each of the last two seasons, Dexter Williams (no relation) did it twice in 2018 and Josh Adams’ brief Heisman campaign included two such moments in 2017.

So perhaps it was not an incredibly rare outing, but it should establish Estimé as Notre Dame’s bellcow moving forward and it reached the lofty standard of the best-looking moments from the Irish offense the last six years.

“It’s what you hope Notre Dame football is going to be about,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said Saturday evening. “That you’re going to have an O-line that can run the ball, even if a team knows we’re going to run the ball. To be able to get — I’m not saying we’re going to get 10 yards, those were added bonuses today, those big plays — but to be able to run the ball at will for four or five yards, that’s something you have to be able to do, especially with our current roster.”

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Make that players. Estimé combined with position-mates Chris Tyree and Logan Diggs to run for 264 yards on 45 rushes. Tyree and Diggs added 89 more yards on seven catches. All told, the trio averaged 7.2 yards per touch.

“The ability to use those three in different ways,” Freeman said. “… We knew we were going to have to be kind of strategic in terms of what personnel we’re going to use. To have a guy like Chris Tyree that you can use in the backfield, use in the slot, do some different things with, it really opens up things for our offense.

“They were just going on a roll.”

Of course, some credit should go to the heretofore-maligned offensive line. No matter the opponent and its clear defensive struggles, opening up enough space to gain 264 rushing yards warrants notice and praise. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne seeking out offensive line coach Harry Hiestand after the game underscored that understanding within the program, even if it may be disregarded by many outside.

“Every single day, [the offensive linemen] go in, they know it’s going to be tough because coach Hiestand holds them to such a high standard,” Pyne said. “But they want that, they want to get better and they want to succeed.”

PLAY OF THE GAME
Irish offensive coordinator Tommy Rees noticed the chance earlier in the game. Pyne had rolled out as designed midway through the second quarter, looking for a receiver on the right side of the field. As a defender stuck with tight end Michael Mayer and two more pressured Pyne, he ended up throwing the ball away, seemingly a wasted snap.

But Rees made something of it. He noticed Tyree’s route to the left flat had gone uncovered by the Tar Heels, Gene Chizik’s defense entirely rolling with Pyne.

“We noticed and next time, Diggs was, no one was around him,” Pyne said, still almost struggling to understand how the back was so open. “It’s a pretty awesome feeling, except that ball feels like it’s in the air for 20 seconds.

“Again, credit to coach Rees. He called an unbelievable game, put us in great position to succeed.”

For the record, Pyne’s pass to Diggs hung in the air for only two or three seconds, but when it came down, it gave Notre Dame a three-possession lead early in the third quarter and control of the game.

STAT OF THE GAME
The Irish won the coin toss for the first time with Freeman as head coach.

Okay, that’s not really the stat of the game.

How about Pyne going 5-of-9 for 123 yards on passes traveling 10 or more yards past the line of scrimmage, after attempting only three such throws last week?

“Just execution,” Freeman said of the difference. “You saw last week in the first half, Drew makes the right decisions. It’s never a decision issue. It’s the execution. Early in the game last week, he wasn’t executing the way he would want or we would want. But today, he continued to make good decisions, he executed, put the ball where it needed to be. Some guys made some plays.”

QUOTE OF THE GAME
Not enough time has been spent around Freeman yet, particularly in postgame environments, to know whether this was said with his tongue wedged in his cheek or if it was an unexpected angle to offer sincerely. Both would fit, oddly enough.

“I try to tell the team all the time, when things go bad, it’s bad play calling,” Freeman said. “When things go well, it’s great play calling.”

Freeman probably had his tongue wedged in his cheek, acknowledging there has been far too much overreaction to blown plays. Play calling can do only so much, especially when the quarterback is missing throws to a wide-open preseason All-American.

“I believe in the game Tommy Rees has called from Ohio State to Marshall to Cal to now,” Freeman said. “We were able to execute better, and that’s to me, the sign of a leader.”

TURNING POINT OF THE GAME
As impressive as the Irish offense was, and it was as it gained 576 total yards and 6.8 yards per play, led by those three running backs, Notre Dame was not going to be stopped by North Carolina, particularly not this rendition with a defense masquerading as an open door.

But the Irish still needed to stop an offense averaging more than 50 points per game and a quarterback quickly lessening the memory of the best passer in Tar Heels history. North Carolina had little trouble scoring on its first drive. Then came a three-and-out. Notre Dame holding the Heels to a 50 percent success rate might be enough.

But quarterback Drake Maye still slipped out of the pocket for an eight-yard gain on their next possession, earning a first down in doing so. Three plays later, facing a 3rd-and-12, a designed quarterback draw might have beaten the Irish again. Maye had ample space up and to his left, until Notre Dame senior linebacker Marist Liufau beat both a running back and the left guard to stand up Maye, one of Liufau’s six tackles.

Senior linebacker Jack Kiser and fifth-year defensive tackle Jayson Ademilola helped clean up the play, but Liufau had done the work, most notably beating two blocks.

“We just decided to stick to our keys,” Liufau said. “Those are plays we let him loose a little bit — have to tighten up on the inside, in terms of our D-line and caging, keeping him in the box.”

Maye finished with 36 rushing yards, more accurately 56 when adding back in his yards lost to sacks. That was exactly on par with his first three games, when he averaged 55 yards per game, so by no means was Maye thoroughly stymied, but his yards per rush fell to 5.6 from 8.25 in his first three games (all sacks adjusted).

Hemming him in, or “caging,” to use Liufau’s parlance, stalled North Carolina’s offense enough for the Irish to outscore them even if the running backs were not turning in an all-around dominant performance.

Notre Dame offensive explosion puts North Carolina on its heels early

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 24 Notre Dame at North Carolina
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Just as everyone expected, a dynamic offense could not be stopped at North Carolina on Saturday. To everyone’s surprise, it was Notre Dame’s attack that won the day, the Irish beating the Tar Heels at their own game, 45-32.

In every way, Notre Dame’s offense cruised in Chapel Hill, a 180-degree turn from the three weeks of ineffectiveness that had plagued the Irish (2-2). Five different players reached the end zone, led by sophomore running back Audric Estimé’s pair of one-yard rushes.

“It all starts with our O-line,” junior quarterback Drew Pyne said. “Our line has played and worked so hard. Coach (Harry) Hiestand gets them in a great position to be able to go out there and succeed. Those guys played their tails off for our backs and myself and our whole team.”

Even with those two scores, and a third one-yard ease from junior running back Chris Tyree, lowering the average, Notre Dame ran for 6.21 yards per carry (sack and kneeldowns adjusted, 298 yards on 48 rushes). Most notably, the Irish did not record a single pass attempt on a 12-play touchdown drive, scoring early in the fourth quarter to give Notre Dame a 45-20 lead.

“For an entirety of a game, we played really well,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said. “… It was a challenge to our offense to be able to run the ball, and it was a challenge to our defense to stop the run.”

Two deep touchdowns from the Tar Heels in the final frame lessened the optics of the Irish domination, but they were little more than window dressing for North Carolina, which gained just 86 rushing yards (sacks adjusted). 33 of those came via star sophomore quarterback Drake Maye on the first drive of the game. Not counting the three sacks he absorbed as rushing stats, Maye ran for 56 yards total, that first drive not only an opening salvo but also the bulk of his work.

“We knew early on we had to stop their momentum,” Notre Dame senior linebacker Marist Liufau said. “… Emphasis was to just stop their explosiveness in the receiver position. The quarterback-running back draws was going to be huge.”

Maye finished with five touchdown passes and 301 yards, but much of that came late, after the game was decided. 182 of those yards came in the game’s final 20 minutes, with the Tar Heels trailing by four possessions and never getting within two possessions until the final two minutes.

Pyne finished with 289 yards on 24-of-34 passing, a completion rate of 70.6 percent and, more notably, 8.5 yards per pass attempt. Repeatedly looking downfield was a new development for Pyne, who a week ago attempted just three passes of longer than 10 yards.

“I think [offensive coordinator Tommy] Rees called an unbelievable game,” Pyne said. “He puts me in position to go out there and succeed, do my job and execute. I can’t tell you how many times I ran over to the phone and said, ‘Coach Rees, that was all you.’ He just puts us in such good positions to succeed.”

After Notre Dame opened with a three-and-out, every one of its remaining possessions got within the North Carolina 30-yard line, including six straight drives ending in points.

QUOTE OF THE GAME
Irish junior tight end Michael Mayer caught seven passes for 88 yards and a touchdown, the third straight week Pyne has not only connected with the preseason All-American for a score but also targeted him more than anyone else among Notre Dame’s skill position players.

And a new twist? Mayer took a pitch from Pyne on a jet sweep on the second Irish scoring possession, gaining seven yards around the left edge.

“He’s a beast, man,” Freeman said. “87 is a heck of a football player. You’re a fool if you don’t find ways to get the ball in his hands. …

“You wouldn’t think 87 is getting the ball on a jet sweep. We did it, and it’s going to make a [defensive back] think twice about coming in there and tackling him.”

Ironically or perhaps coincidentally, Georgia did the same thing Saturday with its star tight end, sophomore Brock Bowers. His had more success, a 75-yard touchdown run.

“How many teams run a jet sweep with their tight end,” ABC play-by-play man Bob Wischusen said as Mayer took his.

(Genuine wondering: Was there some example of this in an NFL game last week? It’s hard to believe the two best tight ends in the country were deployed in that way for the first time on the same day completely by chance. Todd Monken and Tommy Rees may have watched the same game one night, though, and found inspiration.)

STAT OF THE GAME
Notre Dame through its first three games: 10-of-38 on third downs.
Notre Dame on Saturday: 8-of-13 on third downs, not counting the final kneel of the game.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
9:53 — North Carolina touchdown. Josh Downs 4-yard pass from Drake Maye. Noah Burnette PAT good. North Carolina 7, Notre Dame 0. (12 plays, 76 yards, 4:59)

Second Quarter
12:57 — Notre Dame touchdown. Michael Mayer 10-yard pass from Drew Pyne. Blake Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 7, North Carolina 7. (8 plays, 83 yards, 3:48)
10:01 — Notre Dame touchdown. Lorenzo Styles 30-yard pass from Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 14, North Carolina 7. (3 plays, 81 yards, 1:26)
6:55 — North Carolina touchdown. Downs 3-yard pass from Maye. Burnette PAT good. Notre Dame 14, North Carolina 14. (9 plays, 76 yards, 3:00)
2:37 — Notre Dame touchdown. Audric Estimé 1-yard run. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 21, North Carolina 14. (8 plays, 75 yards, 4:18)
0:23 — Notre Dame field goal. Grupe 40 yards. Notre Dame 24, North Carolina 14. (12 plays, 52 yards, 1:52)

Third Quarter
12:18 — Notre Dame touchdown. Logan Diggs 29-yard pass from Pyne. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 14. (6 plays, 75 yards, 2:42)
10:21 — Notre Dame touchdown. Estimé 1-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 38, North Carolina 14. (7 plays, 15 yards, 1:52)
4:08 — North Carolina touchdown. Antoine Green 80-yard pass from Maye. 2-point conversion attempt no good. Notre Dame 38, North Carolina 20. (1 play, 75 yards, 0:11)

Fourth Quarter
13:04 — Notre Dame touchdown. Chris Tyree 1-yard rush. Grupe PAT good. Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 20. (12 plays, 75 yards, 6:04)
9:47 — North Carolina touchdown. Omarion Hampton 4-yard pass from Maye. 2-point attempt no good. Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 26. (9 plays, 75 yards, 3:17)
1:44 — North Carolina touchdown. Green 64-yard pass from Maye. 2-point attempt no good. Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 32. (7 plays, 80 yards, 1:36)

Notre Dame vs North Carolina: Time, TV, Preview & Prediction with the Irish as underdogs

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 17 Cal at Notre Dame
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After this afternoon, the Notre Dame Irish and the North Carolina Tar Heels will have met three years straight. Not bad for an ACC arrangement that should have those meetings come on an average of every three years.

The 2021 and 2022 rendezvous were always scheduled, and the pandemic forcing scheduling on the fly led to the 2020 date. After today, they now will not meet until 2026, though that will be yet another Irish trip to Chapel Hill. Somehow this series will include four trips to the southeast (including 2017’s) around one trip to South Bend in 2021.

Wherever it is played, this has been a one-sided series. Notre Dame has won the last four meetings and 20 of the 22 in history. Of course, only those last four have any pertinence presently.

North Carolina may argue it has improved since some of those games, but the Irish roster could broadly claim the same.

TIME: 3:30 ET, the rare afternoon game for Notre Dame on the road, something announced 48 hours after the Irish lost to Marshall. That timing was a coincidence, the 12 days of notice serving as the usual timeline for these announcements, but that upset may have changed the initial plan.

TV: ABC has this broadcast with Bob Wischusen on the play-by-play while Dan Orlovsky provides analysis.

PREVIEW: Let’s rattle off three North Carolina-specific facts.

First of all, the Tar Heels offense has been astounding this season. That cannot be argued. Irish head coach Marcus Freeman did not outright compare North Carolina to Ohio State’s offense, the best in the country, but he did grant the premise of pondering the game plan Notre Dame used to slow the Buckeyes. The Irish would not lean into that clock-eating approach as aggressively, but Notre Dame also knows better than to get into a shootout with sophomore quarterback Drake Maye.

In the first three starts of his career, the former five-star recruit has thrown for 11 touchdowns and rushed for another. He is the proverbial straw that stirs the drink for the Heels, and as the offense is averaging more than 50 points per game, he is clearly stirring it quickly.

Secondly, North Carolina has not faced a defense anything like the Irish will bring to Chapel Hill. While their rankings were, assuredly, damaged by simply facing the Tar Heels, Appalachian State and Georgia State rank Nos. 76 and 97, respectively, per SP+’s defensive considerations. Notre Dame is at No. 18.

Set aside those intangible thoughts and simply recognize the talent disparity between the Sun Belt’s best and the Irish. Neither the Mountaineers nor the Panthers leaned into the transfer portal to find Power Five talent as Marshall did, and even against the Herd, Notre Dame’s defense had plenty more talent. The offense never produced to reward it.

Lastly, the Tar Heels are coming off an idle week. That isn’t the fact. Well, that is a fact, but here is the intended third of these three facts: Idle weeks do not better a team’s chances of winning the subsequent week. They may help players get healthy, but only in so much as time passes. They may help a bit with rest, but hardly as much as many think, especially this early in the season.

Consider Notre Dame’s plans for its off week following this game.

“I hope after four games, we’re not tired,” Freeman said Thursday. “I don’t plan to rest them a lot. We gotta get better. We have to develop in that week. We’ll have three or four practices during that week to continue to find ways to develop as individuals, as football players. We’ll utilize that.”

PREDICTION: After spending the week as the slightest of underdogs, somewhere between a pick’em and faded by 1.5 points, the Irish became 2.5-point underdogs on Friday. That minimal move stands out only in that if the spread reaches three points, obviously that will look more like a plausible football score. Anything less than three speaks more to a version of a lopsided pick’em.

The combined points total Over/Under of 55.5 argues for a final score of 28-27 or so, and for Notre Dame, either one of those numbers would be a season-high in points.

Of the two mismatches this afternoon, though, the wonder may not be about the Irish offense. Increasingly, offenses have the advantage in modern college football. When a lackluster offense (Notre Dame’s) meets a porous defense (North Carolina’s), it is valid to assume the offense will manufacture its way to a respectable showing.

When a stout defense (the Irish) meets a dynamic offense (the Tar Heels), however, such scheming may not be enough. And in one particular area, Notre Dame will have an advantage today.

North Carolina gave up 49 sacks last season. Think about how many that is. Nearly four times per game, Sam Howell was brought down for a loss when intending to pass. Returning much of that offensive line obviously would not bode well for the Tar Heels, and fortunately for them, only 1.5 of those starters still man that line, left tackle Asim Richards (two-year starter) and left guard Ed Montilus (six starts in 2020, eight in 2019). To supplement them, North Carolina found a Harvard transfer, a Miami transfer and is still trying to figure out its right guard situation.

Nonetheless, the Tar Heels have given up six sacks in their last two games, and only one of those came on a clear passing down (a 3rd-and-5). The Sun Belt defensive lines did not have their ears pinned back to get to Maye. They just beat the North Carolina offensive line. One of those came on a 4th-and-2, when Maye needed to make a better read of the situation.

Notre Dame’s defensive line should feast, particularly after racking up four sacks in the fourth quarter against Cal. More dramatically, when the Irish defensive line feasts, it does so decisively. Of the 10 sacks from the Notre Dame defense this season, the opposition managed to move the chains afterward on that possession a grand total of zero times.

Sacks are somewhat underrated in today’s game. They not only cost an offense a down, they also obviously cost yardage. Duh. But what they do beyond that is turn an offense one-dimensional on any subsequent down, a dimension that has just been sowed with doubt.

Of the 10 Irish sacks, only five were on clear passing downs. Five came in the flow of a productive or newfound possession. They then rendered those possessions all-but dead on arrival.

If Notre Dame can merely match Appalachian State’s and Georgia State’s three sacks, those should be three possessions on which the Tar Heels do not score. A couple more possessions expiring by more natural causes, if you will, could be enough to bring North Carolina’s explosive offense down to a level the stagnant Irish offense can match.

Notre Dame 27, North Carolina 23
(Spread: 1-2; Over/Under: 1-2; Straight-up: 2-1)

INSIDE THE IRISH
Manti Te’o’s return to Notre Dame ‘always’ a comfortable one for him, long before recent Netflix doc
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Boston College’s struggles make Irish worries look tame; Clemson faces first real test
And In That Corner … The North Carolina Tar Heels’ explosive offense could set too strong a pace for Notre Dame
Things To Learn: New-look Notre Dame offense needed against prolific North Carolina attack

OUTSIDE READING
Betting on a fast start at North Carolina today
Notre Dame punter Jon Sot winning on and off the field
Four-star OT Elijah Paige decommits from Notre Dame
College football games are taking longer, and everyone, including TV, wants to fix that
‘I’m still here’ by John Wall

Twitter | @statsowar

Things To Learn: New-look Notre Dame offense needed against prolific North Carolina attack

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As well as Notre Dame’s defense played at Ohio State, the Irish needed to risk opening up the game with their offense in order to produce enough to beat the Buckeyes. Hindsight makes both that fact clear and that Notre Dame did not have the offensive cohesion to trust it could do so.

Unless the Irish defense is about to prove itself as undeniably one of the country’s best — as in, not far from Georgia’s, Clemson’s or what is coming together at Utah — then Notre Dame’s offense will need to find that cohesion at North Carolina on Saturday (3:30 ET; ABC).

The Tar Heels offensive production defies some comprehension. No matter the opponent — in this case, FCS-level Florida A&M followed by two Sun Belt foes — putting up 51.3 points and 547.3 yards per game warrants respect. In his first three career starts, sophomore quarterback Drake Maye has completed 74.2 percent of his passes for 9.6 yards per attempt and 11 touchdowns with only one interception, adding 146 rushing yards and another score.

North Carolina (3-0) will score. Notre Dame (1-2) will need to manage more than its season high of 24 points, though by no means do the Irish want junior quarterback Drew Pyne trying to match Maye blow for blow.

“We know they’re an explosive offense, and we obviously don’t want to get into a shootout,” head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “I don’t think anybody in our program wants to do that, especially not the defensive side of the ball. We have to find ways to stop them, not just limit them. We have to find ways to stop their offense and be creative in terms of our plan defensively.

“Offensively, we have to be able to control the ball, but we also have to score some points. I don’t expect it to be a [10-7] game at the end of the third quarter like it was at Ohio State. This is going to be a game where we’re going to have to score some points.”

Though the Buckeyes dominated that fourth quarter in the opener, the fact remains that the Irish forced punts on five of Ohio State’s nine possessions, standing up to force a missed field goal on a sixth. Marshall found similar success running the ball late, but anytime a defense gives up only 19 points, it should be lauded. Cal’s first touchdown drive came courtesy of a short field off a Pyne fumble, scoring just 10 points otherwise.

Notre Dame’s defense has been up to the task. When the Tar Heels inevitably score — and it should be considered inevitable, especially with the possible return of star slot receiver Josh Downs and deep threat Antoine Green, neither of whom has helped Maye to this prolific start — that is simply a reality of modern college football.

As long as the Irish keep North Carolina to fewer than 30 points, the onus will be on the offense to get the win.

Neither the game plan at Ohio State (against the best offense in the country) nor the one vs. Cal (in Pyne’s first start) will push Notre Dame to a new season-high output. Something new will be needed.

Freeman said the conservative approach against Cal was less about Pyne’s limitations and more about Cal’s scheme.

“They were primarily a one-high team,” Freeman said. “One-high teams, a lot of the time, are built one, to stop the run, and two, to stop the vertical passing game. We missed a couple shots that we we took a chance on.”

Couple may have been generous. Most notably, Pyne overthrew junior tight end Michael Mayer up the seam early in the game, prompting a brief conversation with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees that was assuredly not blunt or direct. (Note: Heavy usage of sarcasm there.)

Pyne’s first touchdown pass to junior running back Chris Tyree did cover 18 yards in the air past the line of scrimmage, though. An outlier in many respects. Even the 36-yard throw-and-stumble to sophomore running back Audric Estimé, preceding Mayer’s touchdown grab, traveled just four yards past the line of the scrimmage before Estimé did the rest.

“We’re going to throw some balls downfield,” Freeman said. “We’re not going to get way with running five-yard outs and [run-pass options] and running the ball the entire game, we know that. To be able to win the upcoming games that we play, you’re going to have to be able to complete some balls down the field.”

Notre Dame’s offense hasn’t quite reached “Believe it when I see it” levels of doubt about a downfield passing game, but it is closer to that territory than anything belying confidence.

What did inspire confidence late against Cal that could spur the downfield passing game moving forward ss the Irish rushing game. Estimé may have gained only 76 rushing yards, but combine his day with Tyree’s and Notre Dame’s backs averaged four yards per carry on 35 attempts. If told exactly when to run where, most of us could have gained more than half those yards.

This is not the first time the Irish offensive line has needed time to gain momentum in a season. This has, in fact, become a Notre Dame pattern. A quick search of archives of this space pulls up a quote from then-fifth-year left tackle Liam Eichenberg following the 2020 opener against Duke.

“It’s one of those things, it’s the first game,” Eichenberg said. “I hate to say it, but it takes a couple drives to get up to game speed. …

“One of the tough things is you practice something in practice or on scout team, and it shows up in the game as something completely different. It’s just one of those things, you have to adjust to personnel, to the players you’re playing against. It’s tough. I’m not going to lie, it’s tough, but at the same time, we have to start quicker, we have to attack more, and we just need to focus on improving and going back to basics.”

That offensive line eventually propelled the Irish into the College Football Playoff, sending three players into the NFL draft.

Last season’s offensive line struggled so much in September, now-sixth-year right guard Josh Lugg essentially worked through film with the media during the month, and then in November, he was pointing to those lessons to show what had improved so much for Notre Dame to dominate the final month of the season.

The Irish may have enjoyed a moment of truth against Cal, handing off the ball to Estimé on four consecutive plays, the exact same play call four times over, to get into the end zone.

Freeman repeatedly pointed to that kind of success as an avenue for Notre Dame to open up its passing game. That will need to become proven fact on Saturday for the Irish to outpace Maye.