Improved conditioning apparent along Notre Dame’s lines; Smith emerges as second receiver

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Irish coach Brian Kelly met with the media Saturday after Notre Dame’s 11th preseason practice. He discussed pertinent topics tying both to the on-field progress of the team three weeks before the season-opener against Temple and to some off-field items. A summary of the latter will come later today, but in an attempt to keep these notebooks quick and organized, this includes only Kelly’s thoughts relative to football-specific items.

On conditioning, specifically among the linemen
Technically speaking, the weight room should probably fall among the off-field bits, but its effects are most-noticeable on the field. Kelly is seeing the most improvement in fitness along the offensive and defensive lines.

One might think senior right guard Alex Bars would be juggling quite a bit this preseason, adjusting to the move inside from right tackle. To hear Kelly tell it, that would be quite an inaccurate presumption.

“Alex Bars arguably has had as good a camp as anybody that we have,” Kelly said. “… In terms of transforming his body in the offseason, losing 10-12 pounds and gaining explosiveness, he has really put himself in position to be an elite player. He moves well. He’s smart. He has multi-position ability.”

To that thought of multiple positions, Kelly mentioned not only the obvious of guard and tackle, but also center, indicating it remains possible, if not likely, Bars would be the first choice for a long-term replacement of senior center Sam Mustipher should one be necessary. Junior Trevor Ruhland has been backing up Mustipher in practices.

“If you ask [offensive line coach] Harry Hiestand, Ruhland has graded out really well which was important for us for a backup center,” Kelly said.

Both Bars and Ruhland are only contingency plans at center, though. Mustipher is not only an established starter, but an improved one. The Irish spent much of Saturday’s practice scrimmaging, running upward of 70 plays, per Kelly. He did not necessarily expect the team to keep up full effort through all 70-plus plays, considering some players may not yet have converted overall fitness into game-shape.

“I told the team, ‘We’re not ready to play today, we’ve got three weeks left,’” Kelly said. “‘But if we’re looking at some things we did really well today, we played 76 plays and we did not have one guy that I felt was not physically-conditioned to keep going today. There was not a drop-off from play No. 1 to play No. 76 with the conditioning element.’

“And Sam was one of those guys at times, you worried a little bit about him in terms of conditioning. There’s no worry about him with that at all.”

An improved conditioning and weight-training program has helped directly across the ball from Mustipher, too. While Kelly recognized he sounded a bit like a scratched record with his constant and specifically-focused praises, he still doubled down on them when making note of senior defensive tackle Jonathan Bonner, though some of Bonner’s improvements also come from the additional time spent at tackle after playing defensive end earlier in his career.

“He’s just so much more agile, moves so much better,” Kelly said. “[Bonner was] a bit mechanical last year in a sense that he wasn’t as comfortable with the position. He’s so much more comfortable with the position that he’s playing.

“Again, I keep reverting back to this, but correctiveness in his weight training has allowed him to be much [more] athletic in his movements.”

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Kelly’s strongest accolades for offseason improvements under the direction of strength coordinator Matt Balis were reserved for senior defensive end Jay Hayes. Improved physical and mental conditioning may have Hayes ready to contribute, essentially for the first time in his career. To refresh any memories, Hayes burned a year of eligibility late in his freshman season to provide Notre Dame with some defensive line depth amid injuries, making two tackles in three games, before then sitting out his entire sophomore year. Last season, Hayes made 10 tackles in 10 games.

“When you look at it, he’s had to wait for this opportunity,” Kelly said. “He’s had some ups and downs along the way. You just have to be gritty. [Hayes] came in, heralded as a recruit and some things didn’t go his way. He’s had to fight through it.

“He’s a great testament to some of our younger players about hanging in there. He’s in a great place right now.”

On finding a No. 2 receiver

Earlier in the week, Kelly acknowledged how far ahead of the pack junior receiver Equanimeous St. Brown is. Behind him, receivers 2-11 seemed to be only a day away from jumping to the top or falling to the bottom. From that mix, fifth-year senior and Arizona State graduate transfer Cam Smith has established himself as the next option after St. Brown. Smith’s institutional knowledge of offensive coordinator Chip Long’s playbook certainly helped his cause, having been coached by Long for three seasons with the Sun Devils.

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“If [St. Brown] has a ticket on the train, [Smith] is getting close to punching his [ticket],” Kelly said, referring to the metaphor he employed previously. “We’re looking for that now. We’re looking for the consistency. He’s been consistent. That’s really what has started to separate him from the other receivers. Every day you’re getting the same from him.”

When healthy, Smith was known as a deep threat at Arizona State, relying on his natural speed to take the top off a secondary. That was the role Kelly admitted he initially envisioned for the transfer. Smith has offered more than that.

“He’s a little different than what I thought. … He’s got strong hands. Physically, as you have seen his physique, he’s very strong,” Kelly said, adding the GPS tracking of Smith during practice shows he maintains his top-end speed at the end of a day, even after logging some of the highest mileage on the team.

His rise to No. 2 receiver positions Smith for the field position, though both he and St. Brown will likely see action at both the field and the boundary in order to expedite any up-tempo aspirations.

Kelly said the rest of the receiving corps continues to move around on the field, looking to find the best fits among a talented yet developing group.

On three kickers
The Irish will likely rely on three different specialists in the kicking game this season, as foreshadowed as far back as National Signing Day. Freshman Jonathan Doerer will take over kickoff duties from junior Justin Yoon, allowing Yoon to focus on placekicking while senior punter Tyler Newsome sticks to, well, punting.

“We don’t want to put any dual responsibility on anybody at this point,” Kelly said. “We want them to take the specialty of that particular position and … be consistent at that one.

“If there’s anyone that kicks at another position, it will be because they mastered one and somebody hasn’t mastered their own.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“They were just going on a roll.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notre Dame offensive explosion puts North Carolina on its heels early

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Twitter | @statsowar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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