Notre Dame, Kyren Williams stiff arm North Carolina upset attempt, 44-34

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SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Kyren Williams should have been tackled in Notre Dame’s backfield. The Irish should have been pinned deep in their own territory with North Carolina relishing the momentum in a close game. The result should have been hanging in the balance.

Williams had other ideas. His footwork did not let him be taken down so easily in the backfield. His stiff arm sent Tar Heels linebacker Tomon Fox to the ground with such ferocity it would have fit in a Halloween horror movie. And his speed gave linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel a great view of North Carolina’s hopes slipping away, 91 yards at a time.

“I knew I was going to score as soon as I stiff-armed No. 12,” Williams said. “At first, it was very cloudy, for sure. The play was originally supposed to go right front-side, and something, I don’t even know what happened, something threw me off to where I looked backside and [saw] nothing but green and No. 12 there.

“I just knew at that point, when I turned the corner, I had to get going and there was no denying me getting in the end zone.”

Williams turned a precarious 31-27 lead into a dominant 38-27 one, the touchdown intangibly worth more than seven points, its dramatics dialing up its impact, providing the game-winning score in Notre Dame’s 44-34 win on Saturday night.

“It’s an improving football team,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said. “We’ve got five Power Five wins, is that right? Six, we’ve got six Power Five wins. It’s an improving football team. I just like the position that we’re in, we’re getting better each and every week.”

Williams had help in his decisive moment. Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer cleared a path up the sideline, keeping Tar Heels cornerback Tony Grimes engaged and at an arm’s length until Williams was well past the defender. Fifth-year receiver Avery Davis stuck with the play, outrunning Williams actually, to cut off Gemmel’s chance at tripping up the junior running back.

“It means everything for me, I know what they do each and every week,” Williams said of his downfield help. “They’re there to catch balls, but when they need to block, they aren’t going to throw a fit about it and they’re going to execute to the highest level. I just remember, Avery coming down the field running with me stride for stride making sure no one comes from behind and gets me. I appreciate all my boys out there, everybody collectively working as a group.”

A group effort may have been needed, but the play will be remembered for Williams’ individual brilliance, his cutback, his stiff arm, his acceleration, all part of how he ended up with 199 rushing yards — that yard short of 200 visibly and admittedly bothering Williams after the game — to end any North Carolina upset hopes.

Williams’ was not the only shocking run of the night, just the most dramatic. Irish quarterback Jack Coan — note, that is not a typo, this is a running highlight featuring Coan and not freshman quarterback Tyler Buchner — found a seam in the Tar Heels defense early in the third quarter for a 21-yard touchdown, his surprising wheels a quick response to North Carolina’s only lead of the night.

The Tar Heels (4-4) had come out of halftime and quickly put Notre Dame (7-1) on its heels with a 53-yard touchdown run from Ty Chandler in which he simply was not touched as he outran senior safety DJ Brown. They led for 58 seconds before Coan lumbered into the end zone.

That kind of speed was to be expected from Chandler or Williams. From Coan, it came as more of a surprise, even to him. He said he did not believe he was actually going to reach the goal line until he actually did.

“I don’t take anything for granted when I’m running,” Coan said. “It was sort of like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe I’m still going.’”

Coan nearly scored twice, finding a seam earlier in the game for an eight-yard gain, stumbling to the two-yard-line. Those moments were not by chance. The Irish saw an opportunity for Coan, even heavy-footed and self-deprecating Coan, to exploit North Carolina’s coverage schemes at points. They just didn’t see him breaking so loose and so close to the end zone.

“We’re picking our spot,” Kelly said. “They are a bracket-coverage team in certain situations, and it was a tendency that we felt like we would get Jack the opportunity to pick up some first downs. We weren’t looking for touchdowns or big plays, we were looking to move the chains.”

It was not a surprise that eventually North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell got in on the offensive explosion that at one point saw the two teams score on eight consecutive possessions and 10 of 11. Howell’s 31-yard scramble to the end zone halfway through the fourth quarter kept the Tar Heels nominally afloat after Williams’ stiff arm-and-dash.

“You can’t take away everything from Howell,” Kelly said. “If they were going to beat us with quarterback draw, it would be the first instance in my career that I would stand at this podium and say, ‘They beat us running quarterback draw.’

“I gotta tell you, we can’t take everything away.”

Howell finished with 115 rushing yards on 15 carries, a 7.7 yards per rush average, and 341 passing yards on 24-of-31, adding another score through the air.

His fourth-quarter scramble, a vintage piece of playmaking from the star junior, served only to alter the night’s optics. Williams had decided the game, not quite single-handedly but nearly, and he had done so in a way that will not be forgotten for a long time.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Coan said, and he may have had the best view of the entire sequence. “That was one of the best runs I’ve seen and in-person, playing. The look we got from the defense, it should have been stopped in the backfield. Somehow he nade a play and got around, just kept going and kept going. It was pretty crazy, an unbelievable play.”

Notre Dame began the scoring with a quick screen to fifth-year receiver Avery Davis from sophomore quarterback Tyler Buchner. It was Buchner’s first appearance of the night, coming in to propel the Irish through the red zone, stepping to the sideline briefly, and then returning for one more snap, the touchdown. He played sporadically throughout the evening, most often appearing in the red zone.

Coan finished 16-of-24 with 213 passing yards and a touchdown, in addition to that ground-bound scamper, while Buchner went 2-of-2 for 17 yards and that touchdown to Lenzy, adding 16 yards on four carries.

Notre Dame senior receiver Braden Lenzy left the game in the first quarter entering the concussion protocol, but Kelly was more optimistic about Lenzy’s availability moving forward than usual with a player in the concussion protocol.

Sophomore running back Chris Tyree did line up as the kick returner, but he did not return any and never took an offensive snap, still limited due to the turf toe injury he suffered at Virginia Tech on Oct. 9. Even when Williams was briefly sidelined after a strong hit, it was freshman Logan Diggs who took the subsequent snaps, not Tyree. Diggs finished with 42 yards and a score on 11 carries.

SCORING SUMMARY
First Quarter
4:09 — Notre Dame touchdown. Avery Davis 7-yard pass from Tyler Buchner. Jonathan Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 7, North Carolina 0. (7 plays, 41 yards, 3:19)

Second Quarter
14:55 — North Carolina touchdown. Ty Chandler 2-yard rush. Grayson Atkins PAT good. Notre Dame 7, North Carolina 7. (8 plays, 81 yards, 3:23)
10:01 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 31 yards. Notre Dame 10, North Carolina 7. (13 plays, 62 yards, 4:54)
3:22 — North Carolina field goal. Deandre Boykins 38 yards. Notre Dame 10, North Carolina 10. (13 plays, 62 yards, 6:34)
1:23 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kevin Austin 21-yard pass from Jack Coan. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 17, North Carolina 10. (6 plays, 75 yards, 1:59)
0:02 — North Carolina field goal. Atkins 26 yards. Notre Dame 17, North Carolina 13. (7 plays, 51 yards, 1:13)

Third Quarter
13:21 — North Carolina touchdown. Chandler 53-yard rush. Atkins PAT good. North Carolina 20, Notre Dame 17. (5 plays, 79 yards, 1:33)
12:23 Notre Dame touchdown. Coan 21-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 24, North Carolina 20. (3 plays, 75 yards, 0:58)
4:56 — Notre Dame touchdown. Logan Diggs 1-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 20. (11 plays, 81 yards, 5:24)
2:48 — North Carolina touchdown. Antoine Green 33-yard pass from Sam Howell. Atkins PAT good. Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 27. (6 plays, 75 yards, 2:08)

Fourth Quarter
14:27 — Notre Dame touchdown. Kyren Williams 91-yard rush. Doerer PAT good. Notre Dame 38, North Carolina 27. (1 play, 91 yards, 0:17)
11:52 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 20 yards. Notre Dame 41, North Carolina 27. (5 plays, 13 yards, 2:28)
7:23 — North Carolina touchdown. Howell 31-yard rush. Atkins PAT good. Notre Dame 41, North Carolina 34. (10 plays, 75 yards, 4:29)
1:37 — Notre Dame field goal. Doerer 21 yards. Notre Dame 44, North Carolina 34. (13 plays, 73 yards, 5:46)