And In That Corner … Clemson, again, stands between Notre Dame and the ACC title

Clemson v Notre Dame
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Not to be lost in the shuffle of this week’s early signing period — which extends through Friday and may yet include a Notre Dame signature or two — the sequel to the Game of the Year is still this weekend, and though a conference championship game may be new territory for the No. 2 Irish, it is an old habit for No. 3 Clemson, reaching its sixth conference title game in a row.

If the Nov. 7 tilt was in danger of being over-hyped, the double-overtime nailbiter made sure to deliver. Will this rematch, this Round II offer the same drama (4 ET; ABC)? Let’s walk through the build-up with Matt Connolly of The State.

DF: Well, Matt, we’re back, and some (??) things have changed.

I don’t know where to start. It’s not just that Notre Dame and Clemson did this once or that I wasn’t around covering the Irish in 1997, the last time they faced one team (LSU) twice in a season. It’s that November’s matchup was an instant-classic, double-overtime, thriller. No one thinks we’re about to top that, right?

Then again, Round II will include Tigers quarterback Trevor Lawrence. On one hand, backup D.J. Uiagalelei threw for 439 yards and two touchdowns in November; how much more could Lawrence really have done? On the other, he is Trevor Lawrence.

In discussing how things change facing Lawrence this week, Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly suggested the Irish defense will have to worry more about quarterback runs, “There may be a little bit more activation of quarterback runs, but the scheme up front, we’re well aware of what that scheme is in terms of the quarterback run scheme. Just being a little bit more locked into some quarterback runs, perhaps would be the only slight difference.”

How much should Notre Dame worry about Lawrence on the ground? What other offensive changes does he bring compared to what Uiagalelei showed six weeks ago?

MC: Trevor Lawrence is a really good runner, and it’s a part of his game that continues to get overlooked. He had seven carries for 41 yards and two touchdowns in Clemson’s most-recent game against Virginia Tech, and in last year’s College Football Playoff semifinal, he had 16 carries for 107 yards and a score against Ohio State. Over the years, Clemson has relied on the quarterback run in big games, whether it be Deshaun Watson, Kelly Bryant or Lawrence, and this certainly qualifies as a big game. D.J. Uiagalelei is a very capable runner as well, but he didn’t get many opportunities in South Bend as he was coming off of a shoulder injury and Clemson wanted to protect him.

As for other changes, I wouldn’t expect a ton. Uiagalelei can make all the throws, as Notre Dame fans are aware of after he passed for the most yards ever by an opposing quarterback against the Irish. Lawrence can certainly make every throw as well. If anything, Lawrence’s decision-making with zone reads and RPOs might be a bit better due to his experience, but I wouldn’t expect a ton of changes.

I’d like to focus specifically on senior receiver Cornell Powell. Though he did catch 11 passes for 105 yards the week before facing the Irish, his 6-catch, 161-yard showing in South Bend felt like his coming-out party. Since then, Powell has caught 10 passes for 266 yards and two touchdowns.

Where did this come from? Did you anticipate his emergence at all?

It’s funny you say that. Co-offensive coordinator Tony Elliott referred to the Notre Dame game as Powell’s coming-out-party as well earlier this week. The coaching staff couldn’t say enough good things about Powell during preseason camp and he seemed poised for a breakout year. However, when he got off to a slow start, I think there were questions about if he would ever become a top wideout for the Tigers. He has certainly put those questions to bed now. 

Talent has never been an issue for Powell; it was simply attention to detail and putting in the extra work. When Lawrence missed time with COVID-19, Dabo Swinney challenged Powell to step up and help the freshman passer. Powell took the challenge to heart and responded the right way. I think he gained confidence making plays for Uiagalelei and just continued his improved play once Lawrence returned.

Powell’s play at Boston College before facing Notre Dame could have been then seen as a one-game flash, but a four-game stretch of 27 catches for 532 yards (compared to 14 and 152 in the season’s first six contests) indicates he is a genuine offensive threat and a worthwhile complement to classmate Amari Rodgers. Aside from Powell’s literal statistics, how has his emergence changed Clemson’s offense?

It’s forcing defenses to pick their poison. You can’t take away Rodgers and Powell and still stack the box to try to stop Travis Etienne. Clemson does a good job of taking what the defense gives it, whether it be one-on-one matchups with Rodgers or Powell, handing the ball off to Etienne, tossing it to Etienne out of the backfield or Lawrence keeping the ball himself and using his legs.

Defensively, the question of “What’s changed?” hinges on “Who is healthy?” The most notable names in November on the Tigers injured list (aside from Lawrence) were linebackers James Skalski and Mike Jones, and defensive tackle Tyler Davis. I believe Jones is back and full-go, but in his return Clemson now loses Jake Venables to a broken arm. Is that a net-neutral?

I think Jones being out was probably a bigger blow now that Skalski may be fully healthy and ready to go. Jones is a full-time starter, while Venables is Skalski’s backup. With that said, Venables was productive this season when he was needed.

And Skalski and Davis are back, at least to some degree, right? The Tigers rested Skalski in the second half against Virginia Tech on Dec. 5. Was that purely precautionary? Is he 100 percent? How about Davis?

Skalski was sore against Virginia Tech and only played five snaps. I don’t see him missing the game, but I’m almost not sure he’s 100 percent.

Davis played a season-high 36 snaps against Virginia Tech and should be good to go. If Skalski is limited it would be a huge loss with Venables already ruled out. Third-string linebacker Kane Patterson would be forced into action. He’s played 103 snaps all year, with 49 of those coming in the last two games.

I would argue Davis and Skalski mean as much in this rematch as Lawrence does. Notre Dame ran for 208 yards in its upset. That allowed the Irish offense to remain calm even as it couldn’t score for 59 minutes, and when it needed a big play, Ian Book was not pressured. Kelly said, “As we looked at the last couple of games over the weekend, not as many pressures (as against us), and it could be maybe because they had their captain (Skalski) out on defense, and they wanted to slow some things down. We’ll be prepared for a little bit of everything from what they do defensively.” Will Clemson and defensive coordinator Brent Venables dial up more aggressive blitzes in Charlotte?

I think so, but Clemson also blitzed some in Round 1. Notre Dame just did a nice job of picking them up. Venables had a lot of praise for Notre Dame’s offensive line this week but also said Clemson defenders need to do a better job of getting off blocks and winning one-on-one matchups.

These thoughts have largely been from this viewpoint. What did you see from Notre Dame in November that you’d expect more of or that the Tigers may focus on slowing down?

I saw a really, really good football team and one that is much better than the Notre Dame team I saw in 2018. Ian Book is a winner and competitor. Kyren Williams is fast and shifty. The tight ends and receivers can make contested catches. And defensively there are athletes all over the field. The team speed seemed much better than in 2018.

I think in football the line of scrimmage is so important, and Notre Dame dominated on both sides of the ball the first time around. I think the biggest areas of concern for Clemson are establishing the run and trying to stop the run.

We’re looking at a 10.5-point spread as of Thursday morning. I’d argue that hints at Clemson needing this win more than the Irish do. Is there any added impetus there these days? This is the closest the Tigers have been to not playing for the national championship since Lawrence arrived, and the closest they have been to missing the Playoffs since 2014. As you pointed out last week, “Clemson’s previous five ACC championship wins were against: No. 10 North Carolina, No. 23 Virginia Tech, No. 7 Miami, unranked Pitt and No. 23 Virginia.”

I don’t know that it hints at Clemson needing to win the game more. I think both teams view this as a huge opportunity and a game they really want to win. It’s more that people saw Clemson’s backup quarterback throw for more than 400 yards on the road in a game where Clemson had a late lead. I also think a lot was made (rightfully so) about Clemson being down three of its top defenders that night. A lot of people, and it doesn’t mean that they’re right, believe that with both teams healthy and on a neutral field, Clemson is about 10 points better. At this point, with the games Clemson has won in recent years, there aren’t nerves or uneasiness going into a game like this. There’s a lot of confidence.

I also think there’s a decent chance Clemson still gets into the Playoff with a loss.

I am not saying this pressure is new — Clemson has been in five straight Playoffs, after all — but that one team may be facing more of it right now than the other. Your lean?

I think Clemson pulls it out, but man, I don’t think it’s going to be easy. I’m not one of those people who believe that with Clemson healthy the Tigers will just roll to a win. Notre Dame is a legit top-four team with a ton of talent, and just as I predicted a Round 2 meeting when we chatted the first time, I wouldn’t be stunned if there’s a Round 3 down the road.

Leftovers & Links: Idle-week thoughts on Notre Dame and its difficulties in the transfer portal

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It has become a common complaint among Notre Dame fans, that the Irish coaching staff failed to capitalize on the transfer portal this offseason. Particularly after Marshall’s influx of Power Five Transfers spurred the Herd to a 26-21 upset at Notre Dame Stadium and junior Drew Pyne was thrown into starting duty after Irish quarterback Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, the dearth of transfers on Notre Dame’s roster created angst, particularly at quarterback.

Aside from Northwestern import Brandon Joseph at safety, Harvard graduates Chris Smith and Jon Sot at defensive tackle and punter, respectively, and Arkansas State graduate Blake Grupe at kicker, the Irish do not have any contributing transfers this season.

It is not a coincidence three of those players are graduates, and it is not a coincidence three of them came from schools that could be considered academic peers to Notre Dame.

Coincincidences will not explain this dynamic to the masses, though, at least not enough.

“Can you point me to where and how I could read your complete take on [why Notre Dame can’t or won’t participate fully in the transfer portal opportunities]? Maybe this is a topic worthy of a full column given the current problems that the Irish are experiencing at receiver and perhaps other positions due to recruiting failures?”bostonjan two weeks ago.

Knowing Marcus Freeman’s thoughts on this will not satiate the masses, realizing a non-football-related example will not make clear the difficulties, and overlooking the reality that Notre Dame’s lack of receiver depth goes well beyond the transfer portal and into losing two veterans for either the season thus far (Joe Wilkins, mid-March Lisfranc injury) or the season entirely (Avery Davis, preseason ACL tear) after most portal thoughts were spoken for … let’s answer that question.

The NCAA requires players remain on track for graduation. “On track” can be an ambiguous phrase, but there are bare minimums attached to it. Thus, any player Notre Dame welcomes as an undergraduate transfer must arrive and remain on track for graduation by those definitions as they apply at Notre Dame.

The University is notoriously challenging in that regard for imports. To break a personal rule and use a first-person pronoun here, one friend of mine — and details will be vague here because they are not necessary for the point and his academic process is not the debate here — who transferred into Notre Dame halfway through his junior year from a rather prestigious Northeast institution. Yet, Notre Dame denied so many of his credits, when he arrived in South Bend, he was now entering the second semester of his sophomore year. As sure as the sun rises in the east, this was coming from a place with a lofty enough academic standing, you would all expect every single one of his credits to transfer. Instead, he was no longer “on track” to graduate by athletics standards, though let it be known, this friend could not less resemble a Division I athlete, no offense intended.

Coming from Northwestern, Brandon Joseph faced a similar issue. If the senior safety were to jump to the NFL after this season, it would almost assuredly be easier for him to return to Evanston to procure his degree than to Notre Dame.

Freeman recognizes this reality, and he also recognizes this is part of the University’s fabric. Holding its own courses in higher esteem than the vast majority of other schools’ will not change, for better or worse.

“Our people here at Notre Dame want us to be in a position to be successful,” Freeman said a couple weeks ago. “But at the same time, we want to make sure we protect the integrity of this education here at our University. Nobody is just going to ‘win’ this. ‘Athletics wins.’ ‘Academics wins.’ No, we have to work together to do what’s best for both parties.”

Having enough credits accepted as a transfer to remain on track for graduation is only the second hurdle. The first hurdle, the one Freeman does intend to change, is the timing of that process.

The Irish chased a few receiver transfers this offseason. Now who knows where those players would have gone if Notre Dame’s transfer admission process was lightning quick, perhaps still not South Bend, but it would have become more plausible. Right now, the transfer transcripts have to be procured, whatever academic school at Notre Dame the player wants to enter has to review those credits and eventually a decision on eligibility is reached.

In the modern era of the transfer portal, that delay may be more costly than the strict admissions standards. Joseph was in the portal for hours before he was considering the Irish and just days before that decision was made. Most transfers do not even visit the campus of the new school they commit to. Freeman has identified that sluggish process as something to improve since he was hired in December.

“It’s a process that we’re in constant communication with,” he said this month. “Our admissions, our faculty here at Notre Dame and with multiple head coaches of athletic programs — it’s not just football. It’s just, right now, a period in college sports where transfers and transfer portals are a big part of roster enhancements.”

Freeman was hired the first week of December. You may remember that was a chaotic stretch around the Irish program. His first priority was keeping together the recruiting class set to sign two weeks later. His second was readying Notre Dame for the Fiesta Bowl against Oklahoma State.

That timeline was never going to allow Freeman a chance to accelerate the transfer admissions process at the University before most transfers were off the market by February. The inability to chase most transfers this past offseason was not a reflection of Freeman and his coaching staff; it was a reality of a large institution’s momentum and of time’s relentlessness. Freight trains take miles to stop and then much time to reverse course, and in many regards, Notre Dame operates like a freight train.

But Freeman is still trying to turn that freight train around.

“It’s a process that we continue to have discussions about and look to continue to enhance it.”

By no means does that assure things will move quicker this coming winter, but if anything is certain, it is that they will not be slower.

INSIDE THE IRISH
Notre Dame offensive explosion puts North Carolina on its heels early
Highlights: Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 32 — Irish RBs spur offense, Pyne finds downfield attack
Things We Learned: ND’s offensive explosion a sign of needed in-season development
Notre Dame’s Opponents: Clemson survives double-overtime test with top-10 foe up next

OUTSIDE READING
Who are college football’s most surprising impact transfers? Marshall RB Khalan Laborn, former Notre Dame OL Quinn Carroll lead list
Don’t call USC overrated after its best — and ugliest — win of the season
Does college football have an attendance problem? Lane Kiffin’s fan gripes bring up fair point
Here’s the funniest opponent each P5 school has never beaten
Isaac Rochell riding unconventional wave of opportunity with Browns this season
Northwestern unveils plan for Ryan Field rebuild

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.