No. 2 Notre Dame head and shoulders over No. 19 Heels

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Maybe Notre Dame’s and North Carolina’s defenses thought their top-25 matchup started at 4:30. Perhaps the defensive backs wanted to have one more plate of leftovers before getting to business. They may have just felt like the best way to be thanked was to first show how badly they were needed.

Whatever the reason, once the Irish and Tar Heels defenses engaged, a Black Friday shootout became a one-sided slog. A 28-point, back-and-forth first quarter gave way to only two more touchdowns the rest of the afternoon. Despite losing its best defender, No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0, 8-0 ACC) shut down the best offense it will face this regular season in a 31-17 win at No. 19 North Carolina (6-3, 6-3), shutting out the Tar Heels in the second half after reaching the break tied.

“When we went into the locker room tied at 17-17, I looked at my team and said, ‘Now you have to understand, we have to take this one play at a time. This is going to be fighting for every blade of grass, but you guys are capable of doing this,’” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “They did it.

“This is on them. … A dominating performance in the second half because our players were locked into all of those things.”

Graduate transfer receiver Bennett Skowronek provided the winning score with yet another red-zone touchdown, this one breaking from the trend set by his previous five touchdown catches, instead taking a 13-yard handoff around the edge for a score.

Otherwise, nearly all the offensive success came early and often. A frenetic first quarter included four touchdowns on five drives, the only one failing to find the end zone being Notre Dame’s opening drive, a three-and-out losing 11 yards. None of the four scoring drives were contingent on a big scoring play. Rather, pressure from each defensive line forced quarterbacks Sam Howell and Ian Book to improvise.

Both have excelled at that all season, and the first quarter was no different, highlighted by Book scooping up a poor snap from first-time starting center sophomore Zeke Correll, scrambling away from two Tar Heels defenders and then finding sophomore running back Kyren Williams for a checkdown that also served as a wide-open touchdown.

“It was a low snap, it hit the ground, so I lose where my eyes were,” said Book, walking through the thought process that led to the most chaotic 279-yard, one-touchdown performance of his career. “I wanted to be looking to the field over to the left a little bit.

“Grabbed it, and I knew Kyren was protecting to the right. I didn’t think he was going to get out, but he did an unbelievable job and he did get out. I kind of flipped my hips and ran that way. I just know our guys are going to keep fighting no matter what. I scramble and try to make as many plays as I can, and I trust these guys to be in the right spot. That was another example of that. Kyren did an unbelievable job.”

Book took that “make as many plays as I can” style as far as he could at North Carolina, showing more trust in his targets than the most generous assessment would have endorsed. His peak moment of backyard ball veered into recklessness and foolishness, an arching pitch to freshman tight end Michael Mayer in the fourth quarter that somehow resulted in an 11-yard gain. Of course, when such a moment converts a third down, it goes from reckless to instinctual and from foolish to endearing.

“They’re obviously risky, I don’t want to do it too much,” Book said, noting he last attempted such youthful passes (also completing a backhanded shovel pass to Skowronek) his sophomore year of high school, perhaps five years later than one would have guessed. “But again, I’m just trying to fight to get that first down, fight to get the ball into playmakers’ hands. I knew Mike would come down with it. It just happens. Definitely not thinking about doing it, it just happens.”

Now tied for the all-time lead in career victories as the starting quarterback at Notre Dame with 29, and second all-time in winning percentage, Book out-performed his Tar Heels counterpart in every regard. Howell finished with 211 yards on 17-of-27 passing with one touchdown while getting sacked six times.

Kelly took the opportunity to trumpet his three-year starter’s success. Without a single word impugning Howell, Kelly expressed offense at how Book is not heralded the same way Howell has been of late.

“He doesn’t get the kind of credit he deserves,” head coach Brian Kelly said to ABC immediately after the game. “He’s a college football quarterback that wins football games. We try to make too much out of it, other than he’s a winner and he won again on the road against a really good football team.”

With all due respect to Book, and respect is due, him out-playing Howell was as much a testament to the Irish defense, even though it lacked its greatest equalizer and failsafe for the entire second half after sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton was ejected for targeting.

On a third-and-long, Hamilton tackled Tar Heels receiver Josh Downs well short of the first-down marker, but as soon as he made the tackle, Hamilton knew his afternoon was over. He clearly led with his head and initiated helmet-to-helmet contact. Dispute the rule if you want — and you shouldn’t — but this was a clear targeting foul by the letter of the law.

Yet that loss did not expose Notre Dame to any Howell Magic. The star sophomore quarterback ended with more than 110 fewer yards than his average entering the weekend. In 21 career games, he had thrown 17 fourth-quarter touchdowns, only to flounder the entire second half against the Irish. After North Carolina gained 220 yards in the first half, the Irish held Howell & Co. to 78 in the second half.

“They were scoring all over film, all over a bunch of teams,” senior linebacker Drew White said. “That just motivated our group as a unit to come into the game and reinforced that we believe that we’re the best defense in the country. We came out not the way we wanted, but I thought we bounced back great.”

Part of that defensive dominance derived from Notre Dame’s offense, which ate up 4:32 on the clinching touchdown drive, Williams’ third score of the day, a punctuation mark less crucial than the time chewed before it. In that regard, an offensive line with two new starters echoed what the original unit did against Louisville, Pittsburgh and Georgia Tech earlier in the season.

PLAYER OF THE GAME
Book elicited Kelly’s postgame defense, while Williams scored three times to raise his season tally to 13 touchdowns. White received the game ball for his five tackles with two for loss, and senior linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah continued his habit of seemingly being everywhere with nine tackles.

But Correll made his first start and overcame a pair of ugly snaps to put forth a solid debut. Book was sacked twice, but neither seemed to stem directly from Correll. With two distinctly inferior opponents yet on the docket, this beginning should give Correll momentum to becoming a fully-complementary piece by the time the Irish reach the ACC championship game, needing just one more win to clinch that berth.

“As a first-time starter, to get the kind of ball control that we had, especially in the second half, your center has to be doing a great job with protections,” Kelly said. “They threw a lot of stuff at us we hadn’t seen before, his recognition was really good.”

There was less concern about senior Josh Lugg stepping in at right guard, partly because he started five games at right tackle last year and partly because fifth-year right guard Tommy Kraemer is expected back in a few weeks after an emergency appendectomy, but Lugg performed well all the same.

“We knew both these guys were going to step in and play well for us,” Kelly said.

PLAY OF THE GAME
Family turkey bowls have showcased more responsible quarterbacking than Book’s heave to Mayer and flip to Skowronek. Presented in a vacuum, one would set the over/under on 1.5 of those getting intercepted. The amazement and curiosity to behold them succeeding creates a sense of frivolity and glee. But neither occasion is repeatable or something to build upon.

The scramble, improvise and throw to Williams for a touchdown, however, showcased many of the strengths of the Notre Dame backfield. Viewing the play from behind the line of scrimmage best illustrates how calm Book remained despite looming crisis. Williams buys Book time with a sturdy blitz pickup before leaking out. And as Book explained, he clearly knew where his safety valve should and would be, looping around toward Williams as the play broke down.

The Irish would rather not be in that situation inside the 5-yard line, but the fact that Book still found success in the face of disaster is an ability that can be replicated in the future.

STAT OF THE GAME
Both Michael Carter and Javonte Williams were averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game before this weekend. They were the foundation of a balanced offense averaging more than 50 points across its last four games. They totaled 85 yards on Saturday on 19 carries.

QUOTE OF THE GAME
As the early scoring got out of hand, Notre Dame’s defense did not fret. There was no worry Howell was gaining momentum he could roll forward with all game. Because logic dictates that simply is not a thing.

“We really, as a defensive unit, see momentum as a myth,” White said. “I’m sure people will argue that point, but after each drive we go back to the sideline, and we make corrections, however many that will be. Our focus is on to the next drive.”

Preach, young man. Preach.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
9:56 — North Carolina touchdown. Emory Simmons 6-yard pass from Sam Howell. Grayson Atkins PAT good. North Carolina 7, Notre Dame 0. (7 plays, 50 yards, 2:54)
5:19 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 2-yard rush. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. (9 plays, 75 yards, 4:37) North Carolina 7, Notre Dame 7.
2:59 — North Carolina touchdown. Howell 1-yard rush. Atkins PAT good. North Carolina 14, Notre Dame 7. (7 plays, 75 yards, 2:20)
1:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 4-yard pass from Ian Book. Doerer PAT good. North Carolina 14, Notre Dame 14. (4 plays, 82 yards, 1:50)

Second Quarter
1:10 — North Carolina field goal. Atkins 42 yards. North Carolina 17, Notre Dame 14. (12 plays, 72 yards, 4:40)
0:00 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 32 yards. North Carolina 17, Notre Dame 17. (7 plays, 61 yards, 1:10)

Third Quarter
7:05 — Notre Dame touchdown. Bennett Skowronek 13-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, North Carolina 17. (13 plays, 97 yards, 5:22)

Fourth Quarter
1:20 — Notre Dame touchdown. Williams 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 17. (8 plays, 89 yards, 4:32)