Things We Learned: Maybe, just maybe …

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NOTRE DAME, Ind. — Notre Dame’s embracing of what this season could become is candid, unusual and nearly taboo. Discussing anyone beyond next weekend’s opponent — now No. 16 North Carolina State coming off a bye — is typically verboten in every regard.

Yet there was Irish coach Brian Kelly following No. 13 Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over No. 11 USC on Saturday, not offering a rote non-answer answer when asked about the national big picture.

“We just want to be aware so we can enhance where we are, just be aware of our situation, and that means you’ve gotten here because you have really stuck to what we’ve asked you to do,” Kelly said.

That much is somewhat par-for-the-course. Focus on the mental preparation that got you here and maybe you’ll get further. Not exactly earth shattering.

“My point being, the big-picture stuff, they’re aware of it,” Kelly continued. “But they know how they got here and they like where they’re at.”

The Irish being aware of national stakes means the Irish are starting to believe maybe, just maybe, those stakes could pan out.

Maybe, just maybe, Playoff talk in 2017 is not entirely and completely outlandish.
Let’s acknowledge all those disclaimers. “Maybe.” “Just maybe.” “Not entirely.” “Not completely.” “Outlandish.”

This is where a “Dumb and Dumber” quote might often be cited: There’s a chance.

Entering the weekend, Notre Dame had six remaining games, none of them cakewalks. Four of those, in particular, stood out as coin tosses, at best.

The Irish just turned one flipping half dollar into a 49-14 drubbing that was, for all intents and purposes, over by halftime. They are a quarter of the way to the Playoff — if being sticklers, a sixth — and another quarter of that dollar looks far more likely thanks to the ol’ transitive property. Notre Dame beat USC by 35. USC beat Stanford by 18. The Cardinal’s home-field advantage should not trump that math. (35 plus 18 equals, uhhh, 53. Right? Right.)

Maybe, just maybe.

Senior center Sam Mustipher found the right word to describe the balance needed between one week at a time and something bigger could be happening.

“You have to realize it’s a privilege to be where we’re at, and to not take for granted the opportunity we have moving forward,” Mustipher said. “Understand each snap, every play, as long as we go back to basics like we’re supposed to, we’re going to be in a pretty good position.”

Being in the conversation for a College Football Playoff bid is a privilege, not a right. Stick to the fundamentals against the Wolfpack, and that privilege can be extended another week like a Wisconsin driver’s license being good for eight years at a time. Lose focus, stray from the necessities, and suddenly that license is suspended. Feel too good about making it 22 months without a speeding ticket, and that streak can quickly become an 83-in-a-70.

“If we let this [win] get too big, we’re probably not going to do too hot against North Carolina State,” fifth-year left tackle and captain Mike McGlinchey said. “We just have to keep the message and the eyes forward, and as best as we can do that, good things will happen.”

Maybe, just maybe.

In no small part thanks to junior running back Josh Adams, Notre Dame has placed itself into the College Football Playoff conversation, and deservedly so. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

Notre Dame knows there is a long ways to go, but if the physical, emotional, psychological and stylistic outdoing of one of the country’s most-talented teams does not instill belief in those ambitious possibilities, what is the point of playing a team like USC every year?

None of this is to say the Irish are playoff-bound. This is to say Notre Dame showed that concept is no longer the ramblings of some blinded by wool. The Irish belong in the Playoff conversation. It is now up to them, and them alone, to stay in it.

While we’re here, let’s offer the reminder: The first College Football Playoff selection committee poll will be released Oct. 31 at 7 p.m. ET, otherwise known as the Tuesday after Notre Dame hosts North Carolina State. One of those two teams will be in the top-12 of that poll.

Mr. Stepherson, fashionably late is better than never in every regard.
When Kelly said sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson would have an increased role in the season’s second half, it may have come off as nothing but lip service. In his two games since returning from suspension, Stepherson recorded one catch for a loss of three yards. Even those wearing that aforementioned wool could not have genuinely anticipated a late-October resurgence.

Irish sophomore receiver Kevin Stepherson notched his first touchdown of 2017 and sixth of his career in Notre Dame’s 49-14 victory over USC on Saturday. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio)

When Irish offensive coordinator Chip Long called a first-quarter end-around for Stepherson, it could have been seen as a gimmick. For all that anyone outside Long’s mind knows, perhaps it was intended as a one-off. Except it succeeded. Stepherson picked up 13 yards and a first down.

The end-around was called again on the next drive. Stepherson gained 11 yards and a first down.

This was a dynamic presented by Stepherson heretofore unseen, including his still-often-praised freshman season. Fifth-year senior Cam Smith has run a few such end-arounds already this year, so clearly this concept of utilizing receiver speed around the corner is a piece of Long’s playbook. Expect to see it again. Expect to see it with Stepherson.

Then Stepherson caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from Wimbush. The pass was thrown where it should have been, but it still necessitated an impressive snag from Stepherson.

“I knew that he was going to have an effective day,” Wimbush said. “I told him before the game, I’m coming to you a couple times here today. He did his thing and went up and got the ball for me.”

Stepherson finished with three catches for 58 yards along with the 24 rushing yards on two carries. That would be an admirable afternoon for any Irish receiver, especially in this passing-anemic season. Stepherson also returned a third-quarter kickoff for 11 yards, joining junior C.J. Sanders in the end zone as return options.

Smith did not play Saturday due to a hamstring injury. Look for an updated status on him either Sunday afternoon or Tuesday midday. Whether he is cleared to return soon or not, Stepherson may have staked his claim to Smith’s spot.

That does not mean Stepherson has supplanted sophomore receiver Chase Claypool. The latter had his chances against the Trojans — finishing with one catch for 13 yards — most notably a deep ball on the sideline on Notre Dame’s second snap from scrimmage. Wimbush just overthrew Claypool by a yard. (That one was on Wimbush. A later overthrow, intended for junior tight end Alizé Mack, probably should have been caught.)

The Irish will continue running, including against decent defenses.
Notre Dame ran 46 times against the Trojans, throwing 22 passes and taking one sack. Even if removing the fourth quarter (at the end of the third, the score was an easygoing 42-14), the Irish ran 37 times and threw on only 17 snaps.

Notre Dame will go as far as Long’s offense can run it. Finding success in the running game against USC deserves notice. The Irish had yet to find that option against a defense this good. That is partly due to not rising to the occasion against Georgia and Michigan State and partly due to not facing other strong defenses. Entering this weekend, the Trojans rush defense rated No. 65 in the country in yards per carry at 4.12 yards. The best defense Notre Dame consistently gained rushing yards against was No. 78 Temple’s.

USC does not boast a top-tier defense, but gashing it still counts as a step in the right direction. In this instance, “gashing” means running for 8.41 yards per carry.

Again, usurping any version of a “24-hour rule” and looking toward next week, the Wolfpack allow 3.04 yards per carry, good for No. 14 in the country entering the weekend. The Irish beat USC on the legs of junior running back Josh Adams and Wimbush (and Stepherson). Moving a step closer to that Maybe, just maybe will come down to that running game again next weekend.

Brandon Wimbush calls Chip Long, “Chip.”
This is completely inconsequential, but it led to a good laugh during Wimbush’s post-game media availability. Asked a question about him and Long getting to know each other’s strengths and tendencies, Wimbush started out referring to his coordinator as “Chip,” before catching himself in a public setting. The ensuing chuckles made it clear, some personal familiarity has already been established.

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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Clemson survives double-overtime test with top-10 foe up next

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While Notre Dame takes the weekend off, some will take the chance to spend time with their families. Others will go to other games across the country, maybe dabble in an FCS matchup. Most, however, will keep watching the full Saturday slate, and this weekend there are a few notable chances to watch coming Irish foes.

It would be too objective of an exercise to list the below games by order of intrigue, but the first game on that list would not be up for debate: No. 5 Clemson hosts No. 10 North Carolina State (7:30 ET; ABC) in a game that could confirm the Tigers’ Playoff aspirations.

No. 19 BYU (3-1): The Cougars had no trouble with up-and-down Wyoming, winning 38-24, led by quarterback Jaren Hall’s 337 yards and four touchdowns on 26-of-32 passing. Receiver Puka Nacua caught only three of those passes for just 26 yards, but his return from a battered ankle gives BYU one of its two best receivers back, and the other may play this weekend, Gunner Romney coming back from a lacerated kidney suffered early in preseason practices.

That offense does not need to be at full strength to ease by Utah State (8 ET on Thursday; ESPN), but it may be needed to cover a 24.5-point spread, per PointsBet on Wednesday night. More notably, this will give Hall and Romney a chance to find their rhythm before facing Notre Dame in Las Vegas on Oct. 8.

Stanford (1-2): Losing to Washington, 40-22, was not too alarming. The Huskies may be back to the form that landed them in an early Playoff. And Cardinal quarterback Tanner McKee continued the vague NFL buzz around him with 286 yards and three touchdowns on 17-of-26 passing. But it was still a bad week for Stanford. Head coach David Shaw announced Tuesday that running back E.J. Smith will be out for the rest of the season. In the first two games of the year, Smith took 30 carries for 206 yards and three touchdowns, adding 63 more yards and a score through the air. McKee will keep the offense functional, but Smith made it a bona fide two-dimensional offense.

Without him, it is hard to envision the Cardinal upsetting No. 13 Oregon (11 ET; FS1) late Saturday night as 17-point underdogs.

UNLV (3-1): The Rebels are not the scrubs many expected entering the season, including this space. A 34-24 win at even-more-woeful Utah State last weeked confirmed that, but let’s make no mistake: UNLV is still not necessarily good. SP+ ranks the Rebels as the No. 91 team in the country, two notches better than Boston College, but UNLV will not be the worst team Notre Dame faces this season. With Navy even further down those considerations, the Rebels will not even be the second-worst team playing the Irish this year.

How drastically have things changed for UNLV? Favored by 14.5 against New Mexico (11 ET on Friday; CBSSN) this weekend makes it three straight weeks that the Rebels have been favored. Before that, they were last favored against an FBS team in the second week of 2019, nearly three full seasons ago. They had not been a favorite in consecutive FBS games since late 2017, when they went 0-1-1 against the spread against Hawaii and BYU, losing to the Cougars.

The last time UNLV was favored in three straight games against FBS opponents? It was before 2006.

Syracuse (4-0): The Orange tried to gift Virginia a win on Friday, but it held on 22-20 despite four turnovers. All four of those were within Syracuse’s own 36-yard line, yet they resulted in only seven Cavaliers points.

Syracuse could probably get away with such shenanigans again this week, against FCS-level Wagner (5 ET; ESPN+).

No. 5 Clemson (4-0): The Tigers held off Wake Forest’s upset bid in double overtime. It may have been DJ Uiagalelei’s best career game, even better than his double-overtime showing at Notre Dame in 2020, throwing for 371 yards and five touchdowns. But those numbers do not do his play justice.

More of that is going to be needed against No. 10 North Carolina State (7:30 ET; ABC). Clemson is favored by 6.5 points, and assuming that mark holds up to kickoff, this marks four of the Tigers’ last five games against ACC competition in which they have been favored by just single digits, going 3-1 against the spread in those games, winning all four. The game before those five, Clemson was an underdog to Pittsburgh, so call that five of six games in which the Tigers were favored by no more than nine points against conference opponents. In the previous 34 ACC games, only once was Clemson favored by fewer than 10 points, its trip to Notre Dame in 2020 in Uiagalelei’s first career start.

Navy (1-2): The Midshipmen found a win, and they needed only double overtime to do it, beating East Carolina 23-20. By no means did this reflect significant progress for Navy, still gaining only 2.9 yards per rush.

The Midshipmen will need to find a vintage offensive showing to upset Air Force (12 ET; CBS), entering that Commander-in-Chief game as 14-point underdogs.

Boston College (1-3): The Eagles fell behind 37-0 early in the third quarter at Florida State, and that does not begin to describe how bad things are for Boston College right now. The 44-14 final result was far closer than it should have been. Eagles quarterback Phil Jurkovec went 15-of-23 for 105 yards and one touchdown compared to two interceptions after opening the game 5-of-10 for 20 yards and those two picks.

Boston College now hosts Louisville (12 ET; ACCN), and it is foolish to think there is the talent on this roster to lose by as few as the 15.5 points suggested by the spread.

No. 6 USC (4-0): The Trojans found a way to win, and that may be the greatest testament to the change in mindset around that program. When its offense could manage only 17 points, that was still enough at Oregon State, prevailing 17-14.

The reality is, USC’s defense is playing with fire, relying on a steady stream of turnovers that cannot continue, almost literally.

The Trojans should not need such resolve against Arizona State (10:30 ET; ESPN), favored by a meager 25 points against a team lacking a head coach. (Insert reference to 2008 Syracuse here.)

No. 3 Ohio State: The Buckeyes crushed Wisconsin, 52-21, in another instance of the final score not representing how lopsided the game was. Ohio State led 45-7 entering the fourth quarter, completely dominating a team in the top half of the Big Ten.

Not much more time need be spent on the Buckeyes this week, given they now host Rutgers (3:30 ET; Big Ten Network) in a game that will make last week’s look tight.

Marshall (2-2): The Herd fell 16-7 at Troy, a loss that may doom any Marshall hopes of winning the Sun Belt in its first season in the conference. Star Herd running back Khalan Laborn still managed 118 yards on 30 rushes, but quarterback Henry Colombi attempted just 13 passes, completing eight of them for 49 yards. Put Laborn’s output into this context: Marshall ended the game with 96 rushing yards (sacks included) and 174 total yards.

Similar problems should not be a worry this week against FCS-level Gardner-Webb (3:30 ET; ESPN+).

Cal (3-1): The Bears ran through Arizona, 49-31, to a literal extent. Freshman running back Jadyn Ott is already putting his name into the record books. (Context: Ott rushed for 33 yards on 13 carries at Notre Dame.

More may yet come against Washington State’s average rush defense (5:30 ET; Pac-12 Network), ranking No. 64 in the country in EPA allowed per rush, per cfb-graphs.com.

North Carolina (3-1): The Tar Heels will look to rebound from their first loss of the season against Virginia Tech (3:30 ET; ACCN), favored by 9 points, a mark that perhaps puts too much faith into the Hokies’ defense replicating Notre Dame’s performance on Saturday, even if they can now benefit from seeing North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye hemmed in on film.

Thursday at 8 ET: Utah State at No. 19 BYU (ESPN)
Friday at 11 ET: New Mexico at UNLV (CBSSN)
Saturday at 12 ET: Navy at Air Force (CBS); Louisville at Boston College (ACCN)
3:30 — Rutgers at No. 3 Ohio State (BTN); Gardner-Webb at Marshall (ESPN+); Virginia Tech at North Carolina (ACCN)
5:00 — Wagner at Syracuse (ESPN+)
5:30 — Cal at Washington State (P12N)
7:30 — No. 10 North Carolina State at No. 5 Clemson (ABC)
10:30 — Arizona State at No. 6 USC (ESPN)
11:00 — Stanford at No. 13 Oregon (FS1)

Favorites: BYU (-24.5) vs. Utah State; UNLV (-14.5) vs. New Mexico; Clemson (-6.5) vs. North Carolina State; USC (-25) vs. Arizona State; Ohio State (-40.5) vs. Rutgers; North Carolina (-9) vs. Virginia Tech
Underdogs: Stanford (+17) at Oregon; Navy (+14) at Air Force; Boston College (+15.5) vs. Louisville

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)