Things We Learned from the season: 10-3 Notre Dame is two glaring holes from being much more

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How do you turn 4-8 into 10-3? Start with better coaching. Add in thought-out offensive scheming to hide an inexperienced quarterback’s deficiencies. Then rely on defensive strengths to compensate for undeniable weaknesses.

It also helps to have been more talented than that 4-8 reflected in the first place.

Now, how do you turn 10-3 into a College Football Playoff spot? That is the question facing Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly this offseason, a much less drastic task than dealt with a year ago, but a no less pressing one.

The change in direction after 2016 focused on staff changes, program overhauls and a general change in philosophy. Each of those maneuvers hit the right note.

Brian Kelly (Getty Images)

Irish defensive coordinator Mike Elko found a worthwhile defense where a vacuum had been last September. Notre Dame may have tired by the end of the season, but the physical benefits created by a new strength and conditioning staff were apparent, nonetheless. Kelly’s relationship with the players appeared more genuine than it had in at least five years, most notably when senior left guard and captain Quenton Nelson didn’t think twice about wrapping his head coach in a spine-crushing bear hug from behind after the victory at Michigan State.

Building on those foundational blocks will be an equally-difficult task. That will need to come from a more tangible category, the players on the field. Specifically, success in 2018 — scoring against a top-flight Michigan defense in the season opener on Sept. 1, avoiding any mistakes in a raucous environment at Virginia Tech in early October, limiting what could be a potent USC offense to close the season — will hinge on two positions that underperformed in 2017: quarterback and safety.

Obviously, Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush and the rest involved in that starting competition will get the headlines. That was guaranteed as soon as Kelly dodged a question on the topic after Notre Dame beat No. 17 LSU in the Citrus Bowl on Monday, 21-17.

“I don’t think I’m ready to get into all of those things,” Kelly said. “We just won a football game, and then we’ll make all those decisions later.”

That postgame was not the time for Kelly to begin prognosticating the futures of sophomore Ian Book and freshman Avery Davis. Nor was Orlando, Fla., the place. The time will be in early March at the beginning of spring practice, the place being the practice fields with “FIGHTING IRISH” plastered two stories high across its edge.

Sophomore quarterback Ian Book performed well enough leading Notre Dame to a Citrus Bowl victory, he will be right in the middle of a quarterback competition moving forward. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

When Kelly gave Book a lengthy leash throughout the Citrus second half, he immediately established there would be a chance for the season-long backup to wrest away first-string job before kicking off against the Wolverines. It may have happened anyway, even if Kelly pulled Book after an avoidable mistake of a red-zone interception. In fact, it should have either way.

That is not to say Book should have taken over as a starter earlier in the season. The scheme deployed by offensive coordinator Chip Long relied on the Irish offensive line and its running game. Wimbush made that aspect much more dangerous. His struggles with accuracy and passing progressions, however, limited the offense from any greater performances.

If Notre Dame wants to become more than an impressive 10-3, an arm cannot be tied behind its back like that. If Book doesn’t break loose, by offering him that opportunity in the spring, Kelly also inherently cracks the door open a bit to Davis. Come summer, incoming freshman Phil Jurkovec will have his chance, as well. Any coaching staff aversion to change has been dismissed already.

The Irish know they need to find a quarterback. He may already be around. He may have started 11 games this year and merely needs an offseason focused on his throwing motion.

He may be playing in the U.S. Army All-American Game on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET (NBC). If that is the case, Jurkovec will not shy from the challenge.

“I have no expectations for myself,” Jurkovec told ND Insider’s Tyler James while in San Antonio. “I’m going in, I’m competing. Nothing’s going to be given to me, so I’ll earn whatever I get.”

Let’s reiterate this: Jurkovec may not be 2018’s answer. This season only showed he could be.

Similarly, Notre Dame may need to turn to an incoming freshman to solve its greatest weakness — perhaps 2017’s only — on defense. The Irish safeties could not have impacted games much less. The three relied upon, senior Nick Coleman and sophomores Jalen Elliott and Devin Studstill, combined for 105 tackles, one tackle for loss and five pass breakups. The leading tackler of the trio, Coleman with 44 tackles, finished behind six other defenders.

Sophomore safety Jalen Elliott simply did not make enough plays in 2017 to warrant assured playing time in 2018. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

An argument could be made safeties not making many tackles is a sign of strong play from the front seven. It is not an inaccurate argument. This season, strong play up front kept the pressure off the safeties, lest their ineffectiveness manifest itself in more dramatic ramifications. For Elko’s defense to grow even further, a playmaker on the backline will be necessary.

And to be clear, Elko expects his unit to be even better next season.

“Year two really allows you to attack the details of what you’re trying to get accomplished,” he said Friday. “You get to a point where so much [of] year one is broad stroke because you’ve got to get it all in and you’ve got to be able to run and that clock is coming to start the first game.

“Now that the kids have a really solid base, you can really go back and refine everything you’re trying to do and you’ll see a group that understands the details of what we want to accomplish a lot better.”

Nine positions were ready by the time that first game came around in Elko’s debut campaign at Notre Dame. They had the solid base. Adding details at those spots is a tantalizing thought for 2018.

The safeties had not reached such a point even by the season’s end. When Tigers quarterback Danny Etling completed a 30-yard pass to a sliding receiver on a third-and-16 in Monday’s second quarter, it was more indicative of a safety’s failing than of anyone else’s blown coverage. In a third-and-long, the safety’s entire purpose is to prevent a big play, a break downfield.

Elko will need to refocus his efforts on the broad strokes at safety, if nowhere else, heading into year two, but he may not need to with both openings. Current sophomore Alohi Gilman would have started for the Irish this season if the NCAA had granted him a waiver for immediate eligibility following his transfer from Navy. There is every reason to think that will still be the case in 2018.

A move may be in the cards for Irish sophomore cornerback Julian Love, but only because he has proven he is that good. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Elko will have three options to place alongside Gilman. Stick with Coleman, move sophomore cornerback Julian Love or turn to incoming freshman Derrik Allen.

The late-season emergence of sophomore cornerback Troy Pride makes the thought of Love at safety tenable. Notre Dame has a number of viable options at cornerback in Pride, senior-expected-to-return Nick Watkins, junior Shaun Crawford and sophomore Donte Vaughn. Love is the best of the bunch, but he is presumably and likely the best of the safeties, as well. His instincts for the ball border on unteachable, as evidenced by his thirst for one final interception this season during LSU’s final, desperate drive.

As for Allen, Kelly pointed to his playmaking ability as a primary reason he was such a priority in recruiting.

“He was the first guy that we saw that had the ability to cover man-to-man, play the ball in the air and get the ball down on the ground with his size,” Kelly said on Dec. 20, the early signing day. “That was the trait that we had to have in this class. It was a must, must, must. It was underlined five times. We have to find this player.”

The Irish needed to find that player because he wasn’t around at safety this season. While the trio there tallied three pass breakups, Love managed 20 with three interceptions.

Aside from the two holes, Notre Dame looked to be a viable contender in 2017. Special teams need improvement, but they never cost a game and junior kicker Justin Yoon was as excellent as always. Long and Elko showed an acumen for their personnel, most obvious in outcoaching LSU’s rightfully-heralded coordinators. Statement wins over USC and North Carolina State, not to mention the at-the-time under-the-radar victory at Michigan State, proved the Irish had the talent to compete.

Except, quarterback and safety — neither performed nor showed ready potential necessary to push Notre Dame to the next level. In different ways, each of the three losses made that clear. Safety’s solutions are somewhat clear, and it is likely none of this year’s starters have that honor next season. That would be a step forward for the defense.

Quarterback may be a bit trickier. It may rely on development, it may come down to a phenom, it may not happen.

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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.