The holidays are officially upon us, and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have already gifted us an impressive 31-17 win over the dangerous North Carolina Tar Heels. In what is becoming a favorite Thanksgiving-weekend tradition of mine, I enjoyed this game while chowing down on leftovers and sipping my first Christmas beer of the season (the Wintervention, courtesy of Peticolas Brewing Company - check that one out if you haven’t already, DFW-area readers).
This was an entertaining and thoroughly gratifying game to watch as the Irish weathered the first-quarter storm, made crucial adjustments to stabilize the game, then gradually strangled the life out of the Heels on both sides of the ball. It was a total vindication of the strategy the Irish have developed over the course of this season. If you’re an Irish fan, add this to the list of things you’re thankful for on this holiday weekend: Notre Dame played a ranked team on the road and dispatched them without ceremony, and none of us were surprised by that result. That is precisely what Notre Dame football should do, and it is also what they haven’t done consistently for some time.
With two more games left in the regular season, let’s look at three things to follow coming out of this game.
Ian Book, Mayor of Flip City
Ian Book didn’t play the cleanest game of his career on Friday, but it was an impressive effort against a Tar Heels defense that was determined to make him uncomfortable. He showed improvement in the deep passing game, making a couple long connections with Javon McKinley. He consistently thwarted an aggressive, relentless Tar Heels pass rush with one Houdini act after another, repeatedly making Jay Bateman’s head explode on the sideline. He calmly recovered not one, but two botched snaps by Zeke Correll, the first of which resulted in an Irish touchdown after some Johnny Manziel-esque improvisation. And then, of course, there was the flip.
That ridiculously dangerous and somehow successful flip could only have been made by a quarterback playing with freedom, confidence and an internal belief - a quarterback who has grown quite a bit over the course of his time at Notre Dame. It was insanely lucky and I hope Book never does it again, but that didn’t make it any less brilliant.
Trial by fire on the offensive line
Early in this game, North Carolina’s defense emphasized attacking up the middle to exploit Zeke Correll, a first-time starter taking the place of the veteran Jarrett Patterson. Correll had some struggles early, not only with the aforementioned botched snaps but with Carolina defenders gaining penetration and slowing down the Irish rushing attack.
But Correll showed progress later in the game as the Irish established a punishing running game that wound down the clock and snuffed out any chance of an upset. Overall, it was an encouraging performance from an exceedingly talented player who should continue to grow over the next few weeks. And Correll will have to do just that if the Irish offensive line is indeed asked to replicate its first performance against the Clemson Tigers.
On defense, depth is the story again
If I had to pick one moment in this game where I truly felt the Irish might lose, it would be the ejection of Kyle Hamilton in the second quarter. North Carolina had shown they could move the ball effectively and with Hamilton out, they could have made more big plays downfield. However, the Irish defense not only prevented death by deep ball, but only allowed three points in Hamilton’s absence thanks to solid efforts by DJ Brown and Houston Griffith.
Meanwhile, Marist Liufau - so far the least-heralded member of Notre Dame’s BUCK linebacker rotation - turned in an outstanding performance, consistently pressuring Sam Howell and setting up multiple sacks in addition to getting half of one himself. The Irish employed a heavy rotation on the defensive line as well, with Rylie Mills and Justin Ademilola recording a sack and a half between them alongside one for Isaiah Foskey, two for Adetokunbo Ogundeji and another half for Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa.
Against likely the most potent non-Clemson offense the Irish will see this year, it was remarkable to see such a wide variety of Irish players contribute at a high level.