Five things we learned: Notre Dame 50, North Carolina 43

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Every one of the 80,000-plus bodies in Notre Dame Stadium knew that North Carolina was ready to spring a trap on Notre Dame. But wouldn’t you know it, the Irish stepped in it anyway.

That’s life in college football. And after hearing Brian Kelly say pregame that this was a game that “scared him to death,” he watched his star quarterback spot the Tar Heels 21 points and his defense play no better.

But the Irish rallied, digging themselves out of an early 14-point hole and another deficit late in the third quarter to pull out a 50-43 victory over the Tar Heels. The win wasn’t pretty, but it sets up the showdown everybody was focusing on already, with the undefeated Irish traveling to Tallahassee for a shot at the defending national champs.

“Lots of points, lots of penalties, lots of turnovers, lots of things to correct, but lots of resolve on Notre Dame’s part,” Kelly said. “Those kids keep playing. Sometimes it’s not perfect, but they know how to win.”

Kelly’s comments just hint at the work the Irish need to do before they take the field again next Saturday. Let’s take a look at what we learned in the Irish’s wild 50-43 victory.

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This team will live and die with Everett Golson. And Saturday, the quarterback came very close to killing the Irish’s playoff dreams. 

It’s not fair to peg the game’s struggles on Golson entirely. But this is Notre Dame football, a place where fair went to die sometime in the Rockne era.

Golson continued his turnover prone ways, a worry for a team that needs its quarterback to be the best player on the field. But on a Saturday afternoon where two dual-threat quarterbacks served as the engine to their teams’ offenses, it was North Carolina’s Marquise Williams that outplayed Golson.

That’s not to say that Golson was bad. But you can forget a 300-yard, three touchdown passing game pretty quickly when your three turnovers turn into 21 North Carolina points. And on a Saturday where the Irish could’ve buried the Tar Heels with a quick start, Golson spotted them 14 early points on three offensive series, with the Irish quarterback running his teammates straight into the trip wire.

“I’m going to do a better job, for sure,” Golson said after the game. “I think I said it earlier, but I come in here kind of every week for the last couple of weeks saying I have to do a better job. Right now, it’s time for me to stop saying that and time for me to put my words into action and actually do that.”

Next Saturday, Golson will have that opportunity. And he’ll have to play excellent football or the Irish will leave Tallahassee 6-1. But after hearing Doug Flutie talk about it in a half-dozen times during the NBC broadcast, the senior quarterback could take a lesson from the former Heisman Trophy Winner.

Use your athleticism. Play with your instincts. Understand that you need to play within the rhythm of the offense, but also know who you are. That’s not a quarterback that climbs the pocket when it’s just as easy to escape it and make a play.

This is all part of the evolution of a quarterback and a big reason. But a quick look in the mirror could help fix some of the problems that are ailing Golson.

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Brian VanGorder’s defense didn’t respond well to an up-tempo attack. 

Larry Fedora’s offense very nearly ran the Irish defense off the field. They certainly ran it out of the statistical Top 10. North Carolina racked up 510 yards of offense, scoring 43 points and leaving Notre Dame’s defense searching for answers as they struggled to combat a true up-tempo attack.

The quick tempo the Tar Heels played with opened up all sorts of new issues for Notre Dame, with missed tackles, blown assignments and squandered opportunities all leading Brian VanGorder back to the laboratory before Florida State.

The Irish defense struggled mightily with Marquise Williams, with North Carolina’s quarterback throwing for 303 yards and running for 132, accounting for 85 percent of the Tar Heel offense.

“We tackled poorly. We executed poorly. We got to coach better,” Kelly said after the game. “We just got to do a better job all the way around.”

The Tar Heel offense made substitutions difficult, their tempo all but nullifying the Irish’s ability to put in exotic packages. Nowhere was that more evident than on third downs, with Carolina converting 9-of-17, consistently moving the chains and extending drives.

Of course, Notre Dame helped there as well. A slew of missed tackles will have the Irish going back to the basics. And five red zone scores in six attempts helped run the scoreboard up, even if the Irish offense wasn’t much help.

Seeing a big, muscular and athletic quarterback rip apart the Irish defense should have Notre Dame fans wondered what’s to come when the Irish take on the defending Heisman Trophy winner next week. So it’s back to the drawing board for the Irish defense, who will have a big week of practice in front of them.

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Tarean Folston found his rhythm in the Irish running game. 

There’s no better slump-buster than a mediocre defense. And Notre Dame’s running game was the beneficiary of the Tar Heels’ ineptitude, running for 219 yards against a defense that gives up around 200 yards a game.

After trying their best to play the hot hand, sophomore Tarean Folston took control of the running game. It’s a request Kelly has made before, wondering if the talented back had the alpha dog in him that demands touches when two other capable players are waiting their turn.

But Folston did that on Saturday. Making both the ordinary play and the extraordinary one, he thrived on the ground, running for 98 tough yards on 18 carries. He also had five catches for 71 yards, including a key third down touchdown where he was short of the first down but made a move on the defender to burst into the end zone.

After taking over the running back job down the stretch last season, Folston showed himself capable of that again Saturday afternoon.

“As we work through the three running backs situation we got into a really good rhythm with him in there,” Kelly said of his sophomore running back. “Tough yardage, breaking tackles, running through tackles. That’s what we’ve been asking the backs to do, is to run through tacklers. They’re physical, strong backs, and once we saw he was going to run in that kind of manner and demeanor, he was going to get more carries and he got the game ball today.”

On a Saturday where Greg Bryant also did some good things in the run and pass game, the youth at the position is maturing enough to add some new looks to the Irish offense. And a week before heading to Florida State to challenge the Seminoles, Folston is emerging right on time.

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Austin Collinsworth’s injury puts a lot of pressure on safeties Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate. 

Fifth-year senior Austin Collinsworth suffered a dislocated shoulder on Saturday. An MRI will likely reveal an injury that could end the season for the hard-luck captain, just returning to the field after an MCL sprain. Without Collinsworth, the Irish will be incredibly young at the safety position, relying on Max Redfield and Elijah Shumate to carry the load.

North Carolina’s up-tempo offense gave that duo problems, with communications breakdowns contributing to some big plays for the Tar Heels.

“We lost Collinsworth unfortunately early on. And we started him for a reason, because we knew we needed a great communicator back there,” Kelly explained. “So we were left back there with two guys that, you know, struggle sometimes communicating effectively.

“A couple of occasions they were both spinning down on the same play.  When one is supposed to be spinning to the high hole, both of them were spinning down on several occasions.  So those are real issues that we have to continue to work on.”

One of the first things Brian Kelly did when taking over the Notre Dame program was rebuild a safety position with little depth. That forced young players like Harrison Smith, Zeke Motta and Jamoris Slaughter to grow up quickly while reinforcements came.

Well the Irish find themselves in a similar situation. With Collinsworth down, Nicky Baratti out, and Eilar Hardy likely done for the season as the Honor Committee finishes its process, the Irish will rely on Redfield, Shumate and freshman Drue Tranquill to take a lot of snaps.

It’s a challenge that’ll likely define the performance of the Irish defense.

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It’s only human nature. After a distracting week, a tough matchup and Florida State on the horizon, Notre Dame got the job done. And hopefully learned something about themselves in the process. 

After two-plus months of waiting for discipline to be doled out by Notre Dame’s administration, the dominos finally began to fall on the fate of the Irish’s five suspended players. After pushing the situation to the background for five football games, the disappointing conclusion of losing five beloved teammates had to take a toll on the Irish this week, especially when you have KeiVarae Russell emotionally addressing his teammates at Thursday’s practice.

Of course, Saturday’s matchup with the Tar Heels presented its own problems. A quick strike offense that created matchup problems. And sandwiched between two emotional battles, no matter how loudly a coaching staff tells you about an opponent, human nature — especially that of 18-to-21-year-olds — had to have the Irish just wanting to get through Saturday and on to Florida State.

“I told them, you’re going to have some of these games,” Kelly said. “You shake it off. You go back to practice. They’ve done some great things this year. They will be ready to play their very best against Florida State. But the nice part about it is we got great film and great teaching off of another win.”

That film will reveal a few things to the Irish. For the defense, it’ll be a reminder that their unit can only be as good as their foundation. So regardless of scheme, making tackles and being fundamentally sound is critical. On offense, missed assignments and troubling turnovers can derail any individual effort. (We all but forgot about Will Fuller’s Saturday, especially if North Carolina recovers that onside kick.)

But that’s life with a young football team. There will be Saturdays like this. But at 6-0, Notre Dame is perfect and in perfect position to win their biggest football game of the season. What more can you ask for in mid-October?