Mike Tirico talks ND-MSU, his move to NBC, and one crazy summer

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Mike Tirico is a busy man. And in the middle of one of the craziest 11-week stretches you’ll ever see, he was kind enough to talk shop with me for the Inside the Irish blog.

As he bounced between East Lansing and South Bend, and still made it to his son’s soccer game in-between, he was kind enough to chat about his move to NBC, his return to college football, his first time at a Notre Dame football game, and the upcoming Ryder Cup.

Hope you all enjoy.

 

You’ve had quite a summer. Going between the British Open to the Olympics to ND Football. How are you holding up?

It’s been great. And the pace of it all has helped with the workload for sure. It’s an 11-week stretch with the Open Championship golf, hosting the Ryder Cup, three Notre Dame games, two NFL preseason games, getting started on Football Night in America three Sundays in a row, and then, of course, 17 days at the Olympics, including the closing ceremony. Throw that all in the hopper and it’s been a lot of travel and a lot of good TV the last 11 weeks on my end.

I think by this point, most people will start to associate me with NBC as I’ve been on a decent amount of time these last 11 weeks.

 

Has that been helpful, considering your footprint at ESPN? Was that a big part of the decision to come to NBC? 

The Olympics were right up there, along with being a part of Super Bowl coverage in the years that we have it. Those were big pieces of me coming to NBC, the most attractive things. But all these other events have been phenomenal. The NBC golf team with Dan (Hicks) and Johnny (Miller) and Tommy Roy leading that group, they’re as good as there is in the sport and to be welcomed by them and be a part of their big events is huge.

And this Notre Dame package has turned into a great opportunity for me to revisit my college football roots. I’ve stayed involved in the sport each year at ESPN but to get back and be on campus and to do three games in a row at one of the cathedrals of the sport in South Bend, it’s just been phenomenal on my end.

 

What’s been your experience with Notre Dame Football? Have you called a game here? Been to a game as a fan?

I have never been to Notre Dame, it’s was my first time there. Quite simply, NBC has had the Notre Dame contract for the last 25 years, this is the 26th, and I’ve worked at ESPN the last 25 years. So a home game in South Bend wasn’t in the cards for any of us who called games. So I never had a chance to go to a game there.

I was thrilled to tour the campus, soak up some of the vibe and call a game from that stadium. It’s a bucket list thing for any of us who broadcast college football, to call a game in South Bend, and I’m lucky enough to be in a place where I can do that now. And I’m absolutely looking forward to a primetime game there, with a great rival in Michigan State and the 50-year anniversary of one of the legendary games in the history of the sport.

Both teams are ranked and it’s an important game for both. You couldn’t ask for anything more in terms of an environment to celebrate and enjoy college football.

 

So what were your first impressions?

I drove to campus on Wednesday night, spent Thursday 3 or 4 hours just touring the campus and walking around and getting a sense of the place. I think if you’re doing a home game for three weeks there, it’s good to have a sense of what makes it special. I had been there before for basketball games, but the football experience is different and I never really had a chance to see the campus. So to be able to soak all of it up was great.

It’s one of the great campuses in America in terms of where the students live, where they go to school, the religion roots of the campus, the meaningful places on the campus, all of those things are part of the fabric.

And then when you get to sports — most of the great venues in sports are gone. Fenway Park, Wrigley Field, Lambeau Field. Madison Square Garden, although it’s been redone several times. Those are really it, except for college venues.

And in college football, in terms of venues, there are very few where you can say all these great players — Heisman Trophy winners, All-Americans, first-round picks, NFL guys — played here. And because of Notre Dame’s legacy and the school’s they’ve played over the years — like Michigan, USC, Michigan State and Army and Navy — you’ve got a lot of the great players in college football played in that stadium. So you have that plus the winningest school in college football in terms of winning percentage.

The prior Saturday, I went to a Michigan home game, the night before that I went to Syracuse. So in a nine-day stretch I got to go to my alma mater to watch a game, to Michigan, home of the biggest crowd and the program with the most wins, and then the next Saturday go to the place and school that’s No. 1 in terms of all-time winning percentage, at Notre Dame. To experience college football in those places in a week, as a fan, a true fan of the sport, it doesn’t get any better than that.

 

So let’s talk about Michigan. It’s somewhere you’ve been around, living in Ann Arbor. And it’s a place that’s always interesting to Notre Dame, especially with Jim Harbaugh there. What do you make of Harbaugh? What’s the best thing about him coming to Michigan? And do you think he’ll eventually change?

Within the framework of tradition, he has brought new, he’s brought innovative, he’s brought energy, he’s brought edge. And it’s all working because there are results on the field to back it up. I think they’ve lost two games in the first 14 or 15 as a coach.

The guy is getting results. He got results in San Francisco with the 49ers and he gets results here. At the end of the day that’s what gives you the runway to do what you want to do and put your spin on the program.

I think it’s great for college football. I think it’s great that Michigan State has just been awesome the last three years. When you look at the circle around the Great Lakes, those of us who live up here love football. We love football. For 51 years in the NFL, the Vikings, the Packers, the Lions and the Bears have all been in the same division. Those four teams all around the Great Lakes, they’ve all been within the same division. So they have a great rivalry.

Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Notre Dame. Four great schools in terms of history and legacy — we’re talking Heismans, national championships, we’re talking over 500 wins, the winningest programs in the sport — when they’re all good, it’s great. So when we see Notre Dame intersect with Ohio State or Michigan State or Michigan when they come back onto the schedule, it’s great for the sport and those are the games that inspire the kids who live up this way to play ball. And that just feeds to future generation.

So it’s a long-winded answer, but Michigan getting good again is great for the sport because in a couple of years when they meet again, if Michigan and Notre Dame are really good, then the football fans will get a great Saturday and a great weekend. That’s all they want.

 

You’re probably one of the only people who has actually watched the entire Michigan State-Furman game. What do you expect to see from the Spartans this weekend? 

I don’t think we know. And I don’t think they know just yet. I think they’ll have a much better answer come Sunday morning.

Here’s what we know: They are in the mold of the Dantonio teams that have turned this thing around to where they’ve finished in the top five or six here for the last three years in a row. They’re physical, they’re well coached, and they run a great program.

We just spent the day there. You’d want to send your kid to Mark Dantonio to play football. He is a task master. He’s hard on the guys, but they love him. And that’s when you know that the guy is really good. And he is.

We don’t know how Tyler O’Connor, the quarterback, is going to play for a whole year. We know he won his first road start at Ohio State. I told Tyler today that if you win at Notre Dame you should walk right out that tunnel and end your career. If you start two road games and it’s a win at Ohio State and a win at Notre Dame, you’ve done it all.

It’s probably not going to be too big for him. He’s a fifth-year senior, he’s only got one year to play but it’s really great the leadership role that he now has. They can run the ball, they’ve got a good offensive line, and running backs. On the defensive side of the ball they’ve got guys who can make some plays, a very good linebacking corps. So even though the names have changed, there’s still the blueprint for what has made them very good.

We don’t know, and candidly they don’t know, if their best players are good enough to be a top five team or not. I think we’ll start getting those answers this week and then they still play Michigan and Ohio State, among others. There’s plenty of runway to find out how good the Spartans are this year. I think they’re a really good team and they’ll play a physical game as they always do.

 

What’s your experience with Brian Kelly?

I’ve been around Brian at Cincinnati and maybe at Central, too. I was trying to piece that together and I think I might have done a MAC game when he coached at Central. Certainly at Cincinnati a few times and our paths would cross at a couple of other events during the year, and then when he coached Notre Dame in the BCS National Championship game against Alabama, I called that game for ESPN Radio. So I spent time around Brian in the lead up to that as well.

I know him a little bit, but not very well. But certainly know him and know why his style of football has helped Notre Dame return to being one of the college football’s most watched teams.

 

How do you think he handled the quarterback situation? Do you think he regrets playing two guys before deciding on DeShone Kizer, who is quickly ascending as one of the premier guys in the country?

I don’t think there are any regrets at all. I thought he handled it really well. When you’re in a situation with two quarterbacks, it’s always very delicate. And I think this one is made more delicate because Malik is coming off of an injury. And you don’t want to see a guy lose his starting spot because he got injured. So they tried to figure out how to manage that. And by giving them both an opportunity to play, DeShone Kizer was clearly the better quarterback in that game and he proved to be a better thrower.

So in this day and age with the way the offense is spread, that’s probably the best place to go for your No. 1 quarterback. And DeShone proved that on the field. I thought Brian handled it very well. I thought he approached it the right way and things sorted out over time. So it all works.

I will say this: Malik was terrific in terms of trying to accept the role and we saw him last week as we left practice and Malik was staying to throw extra footballs. He knows that he’s just a play away, that’s how he lost the job. And I give that man a lot of credit for embracing what the role is for the moment. That showed me that he can handle it well.

 

You’ll leave Notre Dame and then head out to host the Ryder Cup. What makes you so excited about the event?

When Al Michaels left ABC and the Disney family to go to NBC, part of the trade to allow Al out of his deal was Oswald the Rabbit, some extended rights to Olympic highlights I believe, and ESPN got the first day of the Ryder Cup. So in ‘08 in Louisville at Valhalla and in 2010 in Wales and in 2012 at Medina, I got to do the Friday at the Ryder Cup, and the ‘08 day at Valhalla is still one of my favorite and will remain one of my favorite days ever at work.

The two captains were Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo, who a few years before that in the run up to it were both my partners in the 18th tower. So two guys who I sat alongside for three years in the booth are now out there as the captains of the Ryder Cup.

It was such a cool event, the atmosphere in Louisville was incredible that day. We were on the air from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. and you didn’t think once that you were tired. It was a great day and I love the Ryder Cup. I think it’s special because you never talk about salaries, you’re talking about guys who are playing for continent or country, and every shot really matters.

People may watch Thursday and Friday at a major, but you know most of the guys are kind of jockeying around to get in contention for the last nine on Sunday, but here your second shot on the second hole on Friday could be the difference in the match. And the point could be the difference in retaining, winning or losing the cup.

I love it, I cannot wait to get there on Wednesday, and to be around it and then host the coverage while the guys call it on Friday and Saturday.

 

So who do you put as the U.S. Team’s fourth captain’s pick?

Davis has enough guys in his ears, but Bubba is still out there, right? I’ve got a guy with two majors who represented the United States of America when other guys were saying no thanks about the Olympics. But not only did he represent us by going, but he represented us by how he comported himself there. Bubba wasn’t having a good first nine holes on Thursday’s first round and he’s walking off the green and opening up his bag and giving Olympic pins and golf pins to kids who were watching.

Bubba sat one row behind me on the night that Michael Phelps won two gold medals. And with 50 meters to go, Phelps flips to turn to beat Chad le Clos, who was talking trash beforehand, and Bubba is up right behind me screaming, “Come on, Phelps! Come on, Michael!” He’s rooting like a fan.

A guy who when many people in the golf world turned their backs on the Olympics, Bubba embraced it and represented the country. He’s a damn good golfer. He’s won the Masters twice. I take him on my side anytime. If there’s a pick and he’s still out there, I’d do it in a heartbeat.

Things We Learned: Notre Dame’s offensive explosion a sign of needed in-season development

Notre Dame v North Carolina
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Notre Dame knew it would need to lean on its running backs at North Carolina. That was less a reflection of the Tar Heels’ soft defense and more one of the Irish roster, though that defense was certainly ripe for exploiting.

With sophomore Logan Diggs healthy after missing Notre Dame’s win against Cal due to an illness, the Irish could rotate three backs throughout their 45-32 win at North Carolina on Saturday.

And they did, each of Diggs, junior Chris Tyree and sophomore Audric Estimé getting at least 13 total touches. Their 49 combined touches on 83 genuine offensive snaps gives a decent idea of how much Notre Dame depended on them. Add in junior tight end Michael Mayer’s nine targets for seven catches and 88 yards, and 70 percent of the Irish snaps are accounted for along with 76 percent of Notre Dame’s yards.

Irish head coach Marcus Freeman would have you believe Mayer’s leadership springs those backs loose, and given Notre Dame ran one play for Mayer out of the backfield, perhaps that is as much literal as it is figurative.

“Michael Mayer is in there making sure everybody is performing to a standard,” Freeman said Saturday evening. “Those guys have a standard and they’ll have to learn. This is going to be good to see his leadership.”

Freeman’s tone there had already shifted to one of pragmatism moving forward, despite the offensive explosion the Irish had just enjoyed. That is because Notre Dame’s already thin skill-position depth charts lost another piece last week when junior tight end Kevin Bauman tore his ACL. Bauman had caught three passes this season for 44 yards, including a 22-yarder at Ohio State and an 18-yarder against Marshall.

“We knew we were going to have to be kind of strategic in terms of what personnel we’re going to use,” Freeman said.

Moving forward, that will mean more of Estimé, Tyree and Diggs, as well as more Mayer.

Junior quarterback Drew Pyne may have connected with Mayer each of the last three weeks for a touchdown, but Saturday’s seven catches on nine targets was the most efficient showing of the year from the preseason All-American tight end. Obviously, one of those completions being a quick pitch behind the line of scrimmage helped the percentages, but even without that, Mayer would have outpaced his eight catches on 12 targets against Marshall.

“I was able to find Mike a couple more times this week and just execute and do my job,” Pyne said. “Get the ball to him.

“I’m very happy, because he’s such a great player. Getting the ball in his hands is something our offense can really benefit from.”

Talk about an understatement.

That emphasis on Mayer and efficiency getting him the ball will need to continue for Notre Dame’s offense to continue on these positive trend lines.

And they are positive trend lines. The 45 points at Chapel Hill were about a foot away from being 52 points, the kind of equivalency that can be misleading, but given Estimé’s goal-line fumble came in the closing minutes of the game, it is a valid assumption in this case. A week after Pyne’s first career-start was boggled by missed snaps and wild throws, an efficient showing complemented the running backs’ dominance nicely.

“Sometimes we’ll let the outcome mask things,” Freeman said. “Continue to look at it, is this a football team that’s getting better? It is.

“They’re playing better, they’re practicing better. That’s the challenge. Continue to get better.”

Improving as a season goes along runs counter to the world’s demand for immediate results, but it is a vital part of college football. These players are 18- to 22-year-olds. If in-season improvement is not emphasized, a third of the year is lost in their development.

Consider a player like Diggs, coming off a mid-April shoulder injury. He was limited through much of preseason practices. If he does not look better in mid-October than he did in early September, then Freeman’s coaching staff has failed.

Freeman has made it a recent habit to underscore how young Notre Dame’s offensive line is, and while he may not be precise in that description, he is not inaccurate. Sophomore right tackle Blake Fisher had played two games before this season. Sophomore left tackle Joe Alt was a tight end through most of his high school career and stepped in as a starter only halfway through last year against largely inferior competition.

Freeman somewhat leaves out that they flank a fifth-year veteran in his fourth season of starting, a sixth-year veteran who has started in parts of four seasons and a senior center who has started parts of three seasons, but then again, an offensive line is only as good as its communication throughout. Getting word from Alt to Fisher or vice versa requires both sophomores to be set in all facets.

That will improve from Fisher’s third start to his, barring injury, 14th. (Fisher left Saturday’s game early after getting poked in the eye, per Freeman. He suffered no long-term worries.)

“That’s a group in particular, that you see from game one to game four, it’s really gotten better,” Freeman said. “… They’re gelling. They’re doing a good job.”

Of the two tenets to successful talent population on a college football roster, Freeman has long proven himself in recruitment. The other half is talent development, something that cannot be neglected from September to November.

Notre Dame has relied on development the last three weeks to find an offensive groove, and with Mayer leading the way, that may pay off.

THREE MORE NOTES
— Some asterisk should be attached to the running backs’ dominance and the Irish explosion against North Carolina simply because it is clear, the Tar Heels defense is in utter disarray. Head coach Mack Brown may like to point out defensive coordinator Gene Chizik won a national title with Brown at Texas in 2005 and another as the head coach at Auburn in 2010, but coaching in only two seasons since 2012 may have caught up to Chizik in his return to Chapel Hill this year.

— The Irish have now won 25 straight regular-season games against ACC opponents, a stretch dating back to a trouncing of a loss at Miami in 2017.

— An ankle injury sidelined junior safety Ramon Henderson on Saturday, and a hamstring strain pulled out fifth-year safety DJ Brown during the game. Freeman was optimistic about both prognoses given the coming idle week buys them some time to get healthy.

Senior linebacker JD Bertrand will most likely have to use that time to just stew. His second targeting penalty in as many weeks will cost him another first half, barring a review and overturned decision during the week.

“It’s targeting,” Freeman said. “You can argue all you want, but as I told JD on the field, it’s our job to learn from the situation. It’s an entire game he’s missed now. He missed the first half of this game, he’s going to miss the first half of the next game. We have to learn from it. We have to change, or you’re going to continue to get targeting called.

“No matter if we agree or disagree. So we have to understand, that’s the way the refs called it, so we have to practice different ways of tackling. You have to make sure you’re not leading with your head. One is safety, but two, you need to be on the field.”

A rule change this offseason allows teams to appeal such first-half suspensions during the intervening week, or in this case, two weeks. To this point in the season, this space is not aware of any successful such appeal, and presuming Bertrand will not be the first, he will have to sit out the first half of Notre Dame’s game against No. 19 BYU in Las Vegas on Oct. 8 at 7:30 ET on NBC.

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