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North Carolina Review: Irish Survive Hellish Pace of the Heels

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In the highest scoring game in Notre Dame Stadium history, the Fighting Irish held off the Tar Heels to move to 6-0.

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The turnovers continued, the start was the worst of the season, and the defense played by far its worst game of the season. Somehow, the Irish found a way to win a wild one in South Bend against North Carolina.

Play-Call of the Game: Golson 35-Yard Touchdown Pass to Fuller

The Irish led by 2 points at the half and the defense forced a crucial three and out to start the third quarter. In a game that felt like it would come down to whichever team had the ball last even one punt seemed as if it could turn the tide of the game. Notre Dame got the ball at their own 38-yard and line and rode running back Tarean Folston 3 times in a row for 15 yards followed up by a jet sweep for 12 yards by C.J. Prosise.

Then a tunnel screen to Fuller--quickly becoming one of the signature Irish plays this season--was taken to the house to give Notre Dame a precious 9-point lead.

Armchair Quarterback

A pair of crippling fumbles and a pick six took the shine off a lot of good things Everett Golson was able to do on Saturday afternoon. He was hit on the third play of the game and lost a fumble. Three plays later, the Tar Heels took a 7-0 lead. On the third series Golson tossed his pick six to spot UNC a 14-0 lead. After a surprisingly sleepy third quarter North Carolina added a field goal to make it a 6-point game and Golson fumbled on the first play of the next series. On the very next snap, North Carolina scored and re-gained the lead.

The turnovers are a shame because Golson played really well in stretches. There were a few instances of tap-dancing in the pocket and not having a sense of urgency to run the ball but there were other strong runs that led to his season-high 71 rushing yards. I thought this was his most instinctive running game of the season.

His 55% accuracy leaves a lot to be desired but it's amazing his first fumble was North Carolina's lone sack of the game. Golson is not getting very good protection--sometimes laughably bad protection--and he was able to get 300 yards passing and toss 3 touchdowns. I'm not sure if we're at the point where we have to live with Golson's costly mistakes but he's still making plays and being productive despite those errors.

Turning Point: Cole Luke Interception

With 10:39 left in the game the Tar Heels began an impressive drive that was answering a Notre Dame touchdown. As they were about to enter the red zone--with Notre Dame clinging to a 7-point lead--quarterback Marquise Williams tossed an incredibly stupid interception that looked eerily similar to Golson's pick from the Stanford game.

Toeing the sideline, Cole Luke stepped in front of the long shovel pass, bobbled the ball, dragged his feet, and controlled the ball to the ground. The interception completely changed the momentum and Notre Dame marched down the field, chewed up 5 minutes running the ball 9 times, and scored what would be the game-winning touchdown.

Surprising Stat: 45 Rushing Yards

North Carolina came into this game with its running backs struggling to get going and besides a pair of Elijah Hood runs to start the contest--13 yards total, the latter resulting in a touchdown run--the Tar Heels running backs were mostly invisible. Hood, the former Irish commit, finished with just 27 yards on 17 carries which means he went 14 yards on his remaining 15 carries. The talented T.J. Logan only rushed for 13 yards on 4 carries, and Romar Morris rumbled for 5 yards on his lone carry.

What really kept North Carolina's offense alive was the running of the quarterback Williams. He broke contain numerous times, found open field, kept drives alive, and finished with an impressive 132 yards on 18 carries. That was an incredible performance from him. I thought Williams showed no fear in the game both standing in the pocket and making throws and using his legs to gain yardage. A third of his carries went for first down and another for a touchdown. That's some dynamic running from a quarterback.

Unheralded Star: Ben Koyack

Technically the Irish tight end caught two passes but only one goes into the box score. Koyack once again had a quiet game--hauling in his typical short curl pattern--but had a clutch 2-point conversion reception in the second half and was the player to recover North Carolina's onside kick with under a minute left in the fourth quarter.

Missed Opportunity: 3rd Series of the Second Half

In a game that featured a combined 93 points and 1,029 yards the word 'defense' shouldn't be used in a positive manner. However, to start the second half the Irish forced 3 straight punts and limited North Carolina to 40 yards on 11 plays. Notre Dame scored a touchdown on their first drive of the half (play-call of the game above) but on this third series they got the ball at mid-field and went -4 yard rush by Bryant, and a couple incompletions by Golson in which he was hurried on both throws. That drive felt like it was the one to open up a 42-26 lead but it just did not happen.

Flag of the Game

This was a tough one for North Carolina.

Notre Dame was very lucky to get this call in their favor. The Heels were leading by 1 point just as the 3rd quarter was winding down. Instead of punting the ball away, the Irish got a second chance and finished off perhaps their best drive of the game going 81 yards on 15 plays with a 9-yard touchdown run by Folston and Koyack's 2-point conversion.

Red Zone TD Success: 100%

Quietly this may have been one of the biggest positives from this game. Notre Dame entered the red zone 6 times and scored a touchdown on every single attempt. Every single one. After a couple weeks of sub-par red zone efficiency the Irish boosted their touchdown percentage in a major way this past weekend.

Schemes n Such

This was definitely a lack of execution game for the offense which still averaged 6.4 yards per play (more than Virginia Tech and Clemson in North Carolina's previous two games) more so than bad game-planning or play-calling from Kelly and Denbrock. The pass-to-run principles were in full display to start the game but the ratio never got seriously out of whack even when the Irish trailed 14-0 early on. Through the first 4 offensive series the Irish had run the ball just 4 times versus throwing 9 times but the rest of the game saw 35 runs to 31 pass plays, team kneel downs excluded.

A positive indicator came on the last two series of the game where Notre Dame ran the ball 16 times to 10 passes and scored touchdowns on both drives. It wasn't a terribly explosive 76 yards but it still kept Notre Dame on track to keep drives alive. It also didn't feel like there were a ton of running plays on first down (thanks to Golson pulling the ball down often) yet the Irish did technically run the ball 64.1% of the time in those situations. Those 25 carries netted a solid 119 yards while Golson went 9 of 14 for 124 yards on first down, as well.

Defensively, it was clear that North Carolina had figured out some of VanGorder's blitz packages. In the second half I thought it was smart to back off as the blitzes weren't getting home anyway. That manifested itself into the three straight punts to open the third quarter. Nevertheless, North Carolina finished the game gaining 230 yards on 28 plays over their final 4 drives. Clearly the defense was exhausted by the fourth quarter. Giving up 8.2 yards per play down the stretch is really, really bad. We're lucky to have survived.

Trench Analysis

The defensive line just couldn't get a hand on Williams on several runs and lost contain a bunch of times. That was evened out by shutting down the Tar Heel running backs. The pass rush was spotty at best and for the second time in three games the Irish picked up zero sacks. The defense did have 11 quarterback hurries--8 of them from defensive linemen--which is a very good stat. Still, Williams handled that pressure really well and wasn't too phased by it. There were also a productive 6 tackles for loss but only 2.5 of those came from defensive linemen.

The offensive line continues to frustrate and play wildly inconsistently. The run blocking looks to have settled down though and that is maybe the silver lining. The Irish gained 219 yards on the ground which was the most by a mile since the opener against Rice. I'd take this into account when game-planning against Florida State.

The pass blocking is still bad for Notre Dame's standards. However, upon review it's really a handful of really awful efforts (poor communication or simply getting smoked at the line) that are coloring the whole game in a bad light. For as many poor situations that the line puts Golson in it is Everett putting himself in harm's way no thanks to pretty solid protection.

One thing is clear and that is Hegarty is the weak link of the line, by a lot. Martin and Elmer--the two other linemen not playing well this season--appear to have settled down a little bit as has Lombard after switching to right tackle. I'm not sure what Heistand is going to do but he has a deep roster to work with even if the center position is tough to replace. I don't know if Martin's hand is ever going to heal enough to move him back but we can hope. Either way the line is not playing well enough to keep this team undefeated. With as much weight the offense places on Golson's shoulders--which is fine it's not uncommon in college football--this team will eventually get burned without improved performance up front.

Freshmen Update

Drue Tranquill, Grant Blankenship, Greer Martini, Andrew Trumbetti, Nyles Morgan, Daniel Cage, Nick Watkins, and Kolin Hill were the true freshmen to see the field.

Tranquill was the most productive finishing with 3 tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss, and 1 hurry.

Final Thoughts

  • The secondary is officially in big trouble with the shoulder injury to Austin Collinsworth. That leaves only the starters Redfield and Shumate as the day-to-day safeties with Tranquill having to now lend a hand. This is not a long-term tenable situation at all. If the staff refuses to put Riggs at safety then either Farley, Onwualu, Turner, or some combination thereof have to start cross-training and seeing time on the back end to add depth. This will probably accelerate Watkins' development and well it should. He's burning a year of eligibility and barely seeing the field. If someone like Farley moves it might be time to look to the talented freshman to step up and see 5 to 10 snaps in the defensive backfield.
  • Tarean Folston found his mojo this weekend and played the best game of his career. He paced the offense with 98 rushing yards on 18 carries, scored twice on the ground, and finished second on the team with 5 receptions for 71 yards and another touchdown. Except for speed, he flashed everything you'd like to see out of a back, plus he slipped through a bunch of creases, contorted his body with supreme balance, and fought for a lot of hard yardage.
  • Speaking of speed, it is clearly missing in the run game. The offense desperately needs some 'big chunk' plays from the ground game and not so much reliance on Golson's arm to make the big plays all the time. Folston did have a 20-yard run but once again no run went over that mark. A big difference between this set of backs and some of the elite groups across the country is what the latter can do at the second level. The Irish trio of runners are breaking past the line and too often run into blockers, slow down too much while cutting, or just don't have the burst to force defenders to make tough tackles or take bad angles.
  • We often hear how Notre Dame's opponents always get up to play the Irish. It's an interesting phenomena that shows you how much a lot of other teams don't like us. For example, you'll see Purdue unveil a radically new and effective offense for the Notre Dame game but use none of that game-plan while losing the previous week to Central Michigan. In the same vein, it was interesting to see North Carolina keep quarterback Mitch Trubisky on the bench the entire game after he played in every Tar Heel game before this weekend.
  • I don't need to tell you it was a sloppy game. Three turnovers, 10 penalties for 76 yards, and too many missed tackles.
  • Special teams quietly beat North Carolina's effort. Brindza didn't attempt a field goal (who would have seen that coming with 50 points scored?) but the Heels' kick returns didn't do much, Switzer was corralled for -13 punt return yardage, and Jarron Jones blocked yet another field goal.
  • We'll have to see if the OFD Film crew finds anything to comment about Jaylon Smith's performance but he was eerily quiet int his game. While Schmidt was cleaning up a lot of plays (team-high 11 tackles) it seemed as if Jaylon wasn't in the middle of the field a whole lot and able to be a natural disrupter near the line. I'm thinking the lack of blitzes after the first half put a lot of pressure on Smith to start covering some of North Carolina's receivers further down field.
  • North Carolina was impressive in this game on offense for 3 reasons. One, they played great on third down. Two, their tempo was murdering Notre Dame's ability to get set on defense. Three, they made several big plays in key moments.
  • UNC converted 9 of 17 attempts (52.9%) on third down and Williams finished 7 of 10 for 68 yards in those situations with 6 first down passes. Williams tossed a touchdown on third down, picked up another on a pass interference call, ran for another score on third down, and two of the three incompletions were preceded by penalties that backed the Heels up. The one bad mistake by Williams was his third down interception and just that lone mistake cost North Carolina dearly.
  • The Heels ran 84 plays to Notre Dame's 81 but North Carolina did it with 5+ fewer minutes of ball possession. In my time covering this team I've never seen an opponent snap the ball as quickly as they did at times. That tempo exposed the Irish defense and was very hard to handle. We'll give the defense the benefit of the doubt for never seeing something that fast and now being able to game-plan for it in the future.
  • As a fairly big underdog North Carolina smartly took advantage of some Irish mistakes and made big plays. They quickly scored off Golson's first fumble, nabbed a pick six, took 8 plays (with a couple PI's) to score from inside the ND 10-yard line, countered Hood's fumble with a 75-yard touchdown drive, and scored on a reverse touchdown pass to their quarterback on the first play after Golson's second fumble.
  • For the fourth time in the Kelly era the offense scored 50 points. Right now through half the regular season Notre Dame's 34.5 points per game would be the 10th best for an Irish squad since 1960. Unfortunately, the 43 points surrendered this weekend was the most of the Kelly era while the 510 total yards by UNC was the most since Alabama in the 2012 National Title Game.
  • I thought this would be a 8-4 team so to be sitting at 6-0 right now is a huge win in my book. Three more ranked teams remain on the schedule, none bigger than this weekend, and each game is on the road. These games will likely determine whether this is a good or great season.