The good, the bad, the ugly: Notre Dame vs. Alabama

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That resounding thud you heard Monday night was reality setting in for millions of Notre Dame fans. After a season where just about everything went right for the Irish, after echoes were awaken, odds were defied, and luck had returned, it was hard for even the most jaded of fans not to feel like they were about to witness something magical. That destiny had found its way back to South Bend.

A handful of days in South Florida only emboldened those beliefs. While the odds looked long according to Las Vegas, more than a few analysts felt like the Irish would hold their own, and even the biggest skeptics had become believers in Brian Kelly’s football team. And for the thousands of Notre Dame fans that flooded the region, that invaded South Beach, it was hard not to believe that this team would find a way to get things done.

And then the game started.

After good kickoff coverage and a nice stop on first down, Alabama took advantage of the Irish’s aggression and went to playaction, where cornerback Bennett Jackson and safety Matthias Farley got their heads caught in the backfield, making for an easy throw to a wide open receiver running a flag pattern. From there, it got worse, Eddie Lacy zipped past Zeke Motta in the backfield, danced through traffic and was finally hogtied and taken down by Dan Fox, who was called for a 15-yard facemask penalty. With Alabama already inside the Irish 30, a hard count added five yards to the Irish misery, when Louis Nix jumped offside. Stacking five men across the line, the Irish stuffed TJ Yeldon on 1st and five, before Lacy returned.

On the next snap, Lacy sprinted up the middle for an easy 20 yard touchdown. Freshman Sheldon Day was no match for All-American center Barrett Jones, who twisted Day out of the A-gap. Prince Shembo was swallowed by two offensive linemen. Te’o missed Lacy, diving at his feet as he sprinted by. KeiVarae Russell did the same. Matthias Farley was no match for Lacy with a blocker in front of him and from their, the route was on.

As the proprietor of this operation, I’m going to flip things around a bit. I’m a bad news first kind of guy and that’s the way this is going to be presented here. So let’s get on with the inevitable.

Here’s the bad, good, and ugly from Alabama’s 42-14 thumping of Notre Dame.

THE BAD

The rush defense. Let’s get the big stuff out of the way. It was an ugly performance for ND’s front seven, after looking to be one of the toughest challenges for Alabama yet. From the get go, things started poorly and the Tide marched down the field for three straight touchdowns to open the game, with drives of 82, 61 and 80 all but icing the victory. Prior to Monday night, the Irish hadn’t given up a scoring drive longer than 75 yards.

“They ran the ball effectively. For us, we’ve been able to manage the run game. They were able to run the ball effectively, and then obviously when you do that, it opens up so much of the play‑action game,” Kelly said afterwards.

The Irish defense was often swallowed by Alabama’s offensive line, unable to shed blocks throughout the night. While Louis Nix played well along the front, contributing five tackles and two TFLs, the rest of the unit struggled, and the Irish just couldn’t stop Alabama when they subbed out their starting three, leading to difficult nights — understandably — for first year players like Sheldon Day, Tony Springmann and reserve Kona Schwenke. When Kapron Lewis-Moore went down with a heart-breaking knee injury, the Tide had already controlled the game, but any chance the Irish could stop the Bama ground game became even less likely.

Missed tackles were a product of Alabama’s excellent blocking up front, poor angles by guys like Zeke Motta and Matthias Farley, who found themselves having to knife through a crease hoping to trip up a runner, and Manti Te’o trying to fight his way through traffic to make tackles. With all eyes on the Irish’s No. 5, he struggled with the size and blocking of Alabama’s front, unable to get off a block before it was too late.

With six weeks to break down the Irish’s defensive principles, the Tide created a series of playcalls that looked to expose Bob Diaco’s scheme. After the game, center Barrett Jones discussed the Tide’s counter to what they expected the Irish defense to do.

“They’re good because they are so simple,” Jones told ESPN’s Ivan Maisel. “But, also, they’re simple. We knew if we had certain shifts, they would get into certain formations that we felt like we would have good runs against. We were right — every play, almost. This is not a flaw in Notre Dame. We watched a lot of film. We had a lot of time to figure out what they did in certain formations.”

The pass defense. With Notre Dame selling out to stop the run, Alabama offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier had the perfect answer: a devastating playaction passing game. Quarterback AJ McCarron was accurate all night, hitting on 20 of 28 throws, and just missing a few more big completions.

But McCarron had plenty of help from the Irish secondary, who too often got caught trying to play run support and left gigantic chunks of the field wide open. Just as helpful was Alabama’s tremendous diagnosis of the weak spots in the Irish zone defense, with the Tide continually attacking the deep corners and also having luck on the slants and posts as well.

The Irish defense’s lack of depth in the secondary had been well hidden by Diaco, Kerry Cooks and Bob Elliott all year. But watching youngsters Farley, Russell and Elijah Shumate do their best in coverage against Alabama’s receiving corps gave you an idea that the youth was finally being served.

The first fifteen minutes. Add in a few more seconds to count the Tide’s third touchdown drive, and it was a nightmare start for Notre Dame. As I quoted in my Five Things, you can’t say the Irish didn’t know starting fast would be crucial. But after deferring on the opening kickoff, the Tide just controlled the game, dominating the first fifteen minutes before coasting to a 28-0 halftime lead.

The running game. Falling behind early certainly didn’t help establish a ground game, but it was slim pickings for Theo Riddick and the Irish running game. Being held to 1.7 yards per carry doesn’t give a team much of a shot, and for a team that averaged more than 200 yards per game, that was a huge disappointment.

50-50 calls. Nothing wreaks worse than blaming referees in a game that’s decided by 28 points.

But it was a really tough start for the Pac-12 officiating crew. Tyler Eifert had what looked like possession of the football with feet in bounds on a critical 3rd and two catch, and then bobbled the ball before holding onto it as he fell out of bounds. Yet the Pac-12 officiating crew ruled that he was juggling the ball on the field, and even after Brian Kelly called timeout to give the replay booth more time to review it, they disagreed, as boos chorused down from the stands.

The very next play, Notre Dame got an even tougher break, called for kick catch interference after Ben Turk’s 50-yard punt. The Irish came up with the fumble, which would have given them the ball at the Alabama 24, a huge turn of events.

Replays showed that Matthias Farley, who was flagged for the 15 yard penalty, didn’t touch Christon Jones, the Alabama returner, and moreso was blocked into the return by cornerback Deion Belue. Kendall Moore nearly caught the punt mid-bobble before the scramble for the ball. With a really late fair-catch signal, Farley did all that he could to avoid making contact with the return man, and the Irish were on the spot to recover the fumble, yet it was all for naught, as referee Land Clark marked off 15 yards for the Tide.

“That’s a horrendous call,” Brent Musburger said at the time.

Already feeling aggrieved at the lack of replay review on Eifert’s catch, the pro-Notre Dame crowd overwhelmed the stadium with boos directed at the Pac-12 officiating crew.

“It’s amazing what a bad reputation Pac-12 officials have,” Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel said on Twitter. “And it’s amazing that they continue to perpetuate it.”

As you’d expect, the coordinator of officiating gave a clean bill of health to the crew on the field. But with momentum swinging in the wind, a few close calls early went Alabama’s way, and Notre Dame never recovered.

Missed tackles and Lost leverage. Zeke Motta played as hard as he could, and his 16 tackles were a career high. But he missed a half-dozen others, joined by a slew of teammates that too often came up tackling grass.

Also frustrating for Irish fans was watching Danny Spond and Prince Shembo give up leverage on the edges of the defense. Setting the edge was something that Spond and Shembo both did remarkably well this season. But against Alabama, too often the OLBs were swallowed up and taken out of the play.

It wasn’t noticeable this season because both Spond and Shembo played great, but one of the issues that come with starting those two at outside linebacker is that they lack the size and height Diaco and Kelly want in their edge players. With Shembo sliding down to the line and Ishaq Williams taking a ton of snaps, the outside linebackers didn’t have great games and didn’t do well against the size Alabama presented up front.

Manti Te’o. After spending the entire season playing great football, Te’o picked a tough game to miss some big plays. He still came up with ten tackles, but Te’o struggled with the phyiscal bulk of the Alabama run game, and the three-man front that the Irish employed had Te’o too often going head up with a guard, a battle even the best of players will struggle to win.

Special Teams. The special teams units featured new personnel and saw quite a few starters sprinking into the units. But that didn’t stop the Irish from struggling to get anything going in the return game, with George Atkinson really struggling all season at kickoff return after a record-setting freshman season.

Davonte Neal showed some bad decision making on punt returns, catching a ball inside the five yard line when he tried to make a play and then muffing another return when his fumble rolled out of bounds. The Irish special teams certainly weren’t in the top five reasons why the team lost, but it was discouraging to see nothing in the return game, and a huge penalty (that may have been the wrong call) go against the Irish.

THE GOOD

Everett Golson. All things considered, Golson played a strong game, especially after he was forced to mostly throw as the Irish were behind. Golson completed 21 of 36 passes for 270 yards. He threw a touchdown to Theo Riddick and extended many plays with his legs, connecting 13 times with TJ Jones and DaVaris Daniels, two receivers that’ll be keys to next season’s Irish offense.

After struggling for most of the year to find chemistry with Tyler Eifert, he connected with the All-American tight end six times for 61 yards. (He was three inches and one marginal call away from making that eight catches for 100 yards.)

Still, for as ugly as the game was, the future looks very bright for Golson, who markedly improved in the six weeks leading up to the game. While the offense only managed 302 total yards, Golson never looked flustered and showed good decision making, turning the ball over only once on a remarkably acrobatic interception.

TJ Jones. It was a nice evening at the office for Jones as well, who battled all night and made a ton of tough catches with coverage usually blanketing the Irish receivers. For Jones, the 2012 season was a tremendous success, and a year that’ll set him up for a great senior season.

DaVaris Daniels. Returning from a broken collarbone, Daniels played terrific, catching six balls for 115 yards. Quite a nice way to finish off a freshman season of eligibility. Daniels looks every bit the part of a No. 1 receiver, and putting up 115 yards against Alabama has to have people feeling good about his future.

Red Zone offense. Sure, they only had two opportunities. But against a really stout defense, Notre Dame got in for touchdowns both times. The first touchdown featured a nice wrinkle by offensive coordinator Chuck Martin, running the option off a zone read look that helped Golson dive in for a touchdown. The second came courtesy of a nice throw to Riddick and good execution by the offense.

We said before the game that the Irish would need to get seven when they got in scoring range. While it didn’t end up mattering, they did their job in the red zone.

The Notre Dame turnout.  Throw out the sixty minutes of football. This was a tremendous experience for Notre Dame fans, alumni, and former players. With almost 50,000 people on the beach during a pep rally, ND Nation turned out for their school, and the support was overwhelming.

On the sidelines before the game, it was great to see guys like Mike Floyd and Brady Quinn shaking hands and patting backs. Jimmy Clausen and Golden Tate were spotted, with Tate coming in after winning a playoff game. Former greats like Tony Rice and Jerome Bettis were in town, with the 1988 team having a reunion that brought together many former players, all united behind Brian Kelly and his team.

While the Irish showed they have work to do, even Alabama fans were amazed at the turnout at Sun Life Stadium and in the parking lots surrounding it.

THE UGLY

The Aftermath. It was an incredibly difficult game for Notre Dame and its supporters to stomach. After listening to six weeks of SEC crowing, Alabama ran through the Irish’s mighty defense with ease, doing exactly what many SEC fans thought they would do. The result was a worst case scenario for Notre Dame, empowering skeptics who thought that the Irish didn’t deserve to be in Miami, even with a 12-0 record.

But in today’s current system, those arguments should fall on deaf ears. And any categorization of Notre Dame’s season other than a resounding success is completely ridiculous. After losing ten games over two seasons, the Irish entered the season with a freshman quarterback, a rebuilt right side of the offensive line, and in need of replacing the school’s all-time receiving leader and three of four starters in the secondary, including a first round draft pick.

That the Irish didn’t play anywhere close to their best football on Monday, especially early in the game, is tremendously disappointing. But even their best is likely a few rungs short of where the Crimson Tide program is.

“They’re not just better than us; they’re better than everyone,” athletic director Jack Swarbrick told SI’s Pete Thamel. “It doesn’t diminish the regular season. That foundation is here. We’re back in elite status.”

Elite status is a great step forward. The Irish beat rivals USC, Michigan and Michigan State this year. They beat a Stanford team that finished No. 7 in the country, and defeated No. 2 Oregon. The Notre Dame offense is in good hands and will surely take a large step forward during the offseason, as Everett Golson becomes more comfortable after a season of learning on the fly. Replacing Theo Riddick and possibly Cierre Wood will be difficult, but Notre Dame has a home-run threat running back in George Atkinson, who averaged 7.1 yards a carry, and Amir Carlisle waiting in the wings. Add in wildcard Cam McDaniel, five-star recruit Greg Bryant and guys like Will Mahone and Tarean Folston, and the Irish will be able to run the ball.

Defensively, filling the shoes of Te’o will be a large task. But Louis Nix and Stephon Tuitt will give Notre Dame the best one-two punch of any defensive line in the country, and all the depth behind. The Irish will also return three of four linebackers, and the secondary will welcome back Austin Collinsworth and Lo Wood, and potentially Jamoris Slaughter, who felt very optimistic about his sixth year chances.

The future is bright in South Bend. Sure, the game was a tremendous disappointment. But more so because it just felt like this magical Notre Dame was destined for victory. But destiny doesn’t stop Eddie Lacy.

With recruiting headed down the home stretch, Notre Dame is still targeting some of the nation’s highest rated players, looking to add to the No. 1 recruiting class they’ve assembled. They’ll also have a very clear picture of what they need to do to be able to plant their flag at the summit of college football, pointed out ever so dominantly by an Alabama team that showed the sizable gap between the Irish and the Crimson Tide.

With their mission statement for the offseason abundantly clear, the focus is already on 2013.

“Pasadena 2014,” Nix said.

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 two one-yard rushes.

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 adjusted, 298 yards on 48 rushes). Most notably, the Irish did not record a single pass attempt on a 12-play touchdown drive, ending 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 terrible optics of the Irish domination, but they were little more than window dressing for North Carolina, which gained just 86 rushing yards (sacks adjusted).

Notre Dame junior quarterback Drew 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.

 

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.

And In That Corner … The North Carolina Tar Heels’ explosive offense could set too strong a pace for Notre Dame

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The North Carolina Tar Heels may not score 51.3 points per game much longer this season, just logically speaking, but no matter who the Heels put those points up against, that prolific offense should worry Notre Dame this weekend (3:30 ET; ABC). The Irish (1-2) have barely scored that many points all season, managing just 55 points in three games.

Then again, North Carolina (3-0) has given up 37.3 points per game against arguably inferior opponents in FCS-level Florida A&M (24 points), Appalachian State (61) and Georgia State (28). The Mountaineers managed more points against the Heels than Notre Dame has given up all season (57). In that fourth quarter alone, when Appalachian State scored an outrageous 40 points, North Carolina gave up more points than the Irish have to two Power Five opponents combined.

To repeat a line that began popping up in the elevator at Notre Dame Stadium as soon as the Irish notched their first win of the season, an unstoppable force (that Tar Heels offense) meets an immovable object (Notre Dame’s defense) on one side of the ball while a stoppable force runs into a movable object on the other. To get a better idea of if North Carolina’s defense is weaker than its offense is strong, The News & Observer’s C.L. Brown lends some insight.

DF: These first few games from North Carolina, do they have folks excited or frustrated? They were great wins, but they were closer than expected. The offense looks great, but the defense has not been able to compete against the Sun Belt.

CB: “Defensively, it’s definitely been frustrating. They are up 41-21 in the App St. game, and App. St. comes back to tie it and had a chance to take the lead. They’re up 21-3 against Georgia State, and Georgia State scores 25 straight points to take a 28-21 lead.

“On that side of the ball, it’s definitely been frustrating. They’ve been searching for answers because they felt like when they brought back Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator, they were simplifying the defense, (they thought) they wouldn’t give up as many big plays as they did.

“(Former defensive coordinator Jay) Bateman’s scheme was kind of complicated sometimes for the players with the amount of presnap reads they had to make. They never really clicked in that defense last year. Chizik was supposed to make everything better, and it hasn’t really been better so far.

“From the offensive side, though, it’s been great. They’ve responded to every challenge. When App. St. came back, Carolina always had an answer offensively. Then against Georgia State, when they fell behind, the offense got it together and pushed ahead for the win on the road. … Quarterback Drake Maye definitely has been better than advertised.”

Before we get into Chizik’s struggles or Maye’s stardom, solve a riddle for me: Why did North Carolina go on the road to App. St. and Georgia State? Personally, I love it for college football. All I really want from Notre Dame is to play a game at Annapolis rather than face Navy in Baltimore, San Diego and Dublin. But it was still unexpected. What convinced the Tar Heels to do that?

“(Head coach) Mack Brown talked about wanting to build his schedule. Last year they started off at Virginia Tech, which was a tough season opener for them. They didn’t really feel like they got their legs under them, and then they go out and lose that game early. He wanted to make a schedule where they progressively play harder games.

“Especially this year, coming in with the new quarterback, (Brown) wanted to give them a shot to work out some kinks, get some reps, get some experience, get better as the season moved on. He even moved the Florida A&M game from last Saturday to Week 0. One, so they could have a Saturday to themselves nationally without everybody in the world playing so they would get a little bit more publicity. And two, to have this weekend off before Notre Dame comes.”

 

Smooth moves from Brown there, thinking big picture well before he knew entirely what this roster would be, but then there is the Chizik hire. Chizik hadn’t coached since 2016. In the last decade, he spent two seasons as North Carolina’s defensive coordinator under Larry Fedora and that was the extent of his coaching. What were the expectations for him this year? Where has he fallen short?

“I don’t think anybody was expecting them to be dominant, but just be sound, be better, not have the mistakes. Last year was basically characterized by their communication breakdowns and just allowing big plays. They don’t allow as many big plays (now), but they’ve still given up more than they should have so far this year.

“I thought the defensive line was going to be the strength of the unit, and they haven’t played up to par. They haven’t been terrible, but I was expecting them to be better than they’ve been, be able to pressure more, get quarterback pressure with their base four without having a scheme or a blitz with that kind of pressure. They have a good rotation now, they have the depth now, but they just haven’t taken that step forward as a defensive line.

“And the secondary, Tony Grimes was injured the second series of the season opener and then he missed the App. St. game. He probably hasn’t played as well as expected. Storm Duck has battled injuries … They were expecting him to be a shutdown corner, and he hasn’t worked his way back into playing at that level on the corners.

“Those are the areas that have been the biggest letdowns defensively, their coverages and the defensive line.”

If spending that time criticizing Chizik and the defense, more time should be spent on sophomore quarterback Drake Maye. Let’s run through his stats real quick, as absurd as they sound: 930 passing yards on 9.6 yards per attempt with a 74.2 percent completion rate with 11 touchdowns against only one interception while adding another 146 yards and a score on 26 carries. That’s quite the three-game start. He may be a former five-star recruit and a one-time Alabama commit, but did you see this coming?

“I don’t think anybody really saw it coming. Expectations were he would perform well, but he’s just shown maturity beyond his years. He’s not a game manager. He’s shown he can win a game if they need him to. Honestly, I was kind of hoping App. St. would have converted that (first) two-point conversion because that would have meant Drake Mayer would have had the ball with a chance to have a game-winning drive. A couple timeouts and 30 seconds, let’s see what he can do.

“He hasn’t been in that situation yet, but everything else, he’s shown he can make all the throws. He makes good decisions with the ball. … The main thing he needs to work on is he’s left his feet a couple of times. He got hit and did a bit of a helicopter flip against Florida A&M, and they definitely don’t need him getting injured for a run that doesn’t really mean anything in some of those early games.

“But everything else, he’s shown to be as advertised.”

Editor’s Note: C.L. Brown also made the point that Maye has enjoyed this success without star receiver Josh Downs or big-play threat Antoine Green this season. Downs caught 101 passes for 1,335 yards and eight touchdowns last season, while Green took 31 receptions for 612 yards and five scores. Brown thinks Green (shoulder) is likely to play this week, while Downs (knee) will be a game time decision.

A year ago, this Q&A included you suggesting Brown thought 2022 would be North Carolina’s year, not Sam Howell’s final season in 2021. It may be early to claim he was right, but did he see Maye coming?

I think he was thinking the defense would be a little better than it’s been, because on that side of the ball they stockpiled good recruiting classes and a bunch of talent, especially on the defensive line. He felt like they would have the depth they needed to really, if not be dominant up front, definitely hold their own against anybody. It hasn’t quite been like that.

“He felt like Drake Maye could be good, could be this good. … Mack was looking at this as the year they would have the talent and could make some noise. Right now, the defense is what has held them back.”

Will Maye be enough Saturday? As of Thursday morning, this is essentially a pick’em, with the Heels favored by a point. What do you expect?

“Saturday is going to answer a lot of questions. If they pull out a win, there will be some more excitement about it. Right now, people just look at it as the same old defense. When the games get harder, when the opponents get tougher, are they going to be able to stop anybody? Are they going to have to win every game in some kind of 42-41 shootout? …

“For football to keep anybody’s attention around here, the defense has to play better, and they’re going to have to win on Saturday for people to be like, Oh, this football team might be something.

“I picked Carolina, because they are at home obviously and because I’m not sure Notre Dame’s offense is any better than Carolina’s defense. I definitely think it’s going to be a game where Notre Dame is going to have to score probably in the 30s to win. I’m not sure they can get that done.

“So I’m taking Drake Maye.”