Your Notre Dame Fighting Irish once again emerged victorious on Saturday night after a highly entertaining 44-34 duel with the North Carolina Tar Heels. While flaws were apparent, this game was highlighted by eye-popping plays and major progress from the Irish in key areas that lifted them to victory over a feisty Heels squad. With the Irish now 7-1, back in the top ten and the hardest parts of their schedule behind them, the table is set for a great finish to an often-painful 2021. Let’s take a look at three key threads from this game to follow down the stretch run.
Offensive Stability and Rumblin’ Jack
Perhaps the biggest factor enabling Notre Dame’s offensive success the last two weeks has been the improvement of the offensive line, who at this point look like a completely different unit than the one we saw in September. The Irish pass protection was vastly improved, and a better push up front unleashed a powerful ground game (7 yards/carry - remember this team averaged fewer than three coming into the game). That laid the foundation for a balanced offensive attack. Jack Coan played the kind of stable, clean game (16-24 for 213 yards and a touchdown) we expected when he transferred, and if the offensive line and scheme continue to enable it, he just may be capable of leading this team to an 11-1 finish.
Notre Dame’s offensive youth movement continued as well, with Lorenzo Styles and Logan Diggs getting significant action - the former led the team in receiving yards for the second week in a row and the latter scored his first touchdown - and giving Irish fans a lot to look forward to, not only in 2021 but in years to come. The Irish have a bevy of playmaking athletes on the outside and in the backfield, and the line’s improvement is giving us plenty of opportunities to see them.
If there was one negative to take away from the offense in this game, it was its red-zone performance - the Irish stalled out inside the 20 on three occasions, the latter two in goal-to-go - which could have made this game a laugher with better execution. That will not fly in a New Year’s Six game, so the Irish will need to continue refining that part of their attack over the remainder of their schedule.
The Bellyman Cometh
Notre Dame fans have known Kyren Williams as a star since last season, but it was a long time in 2021 before we got to see that. On Saturday night we got to see him take center stage again, as the Bellyman had a career night and played the lead role in shutting the door on the Tar Heels in the second half. With the Irish offensive line improving, Williams was able to find a lot more holes, creases and open edges to run through and he made the most of them, totaling 199 yards on 22 carries. When Williams is able to get through the front line, he has an incredible ability to turn a two- or three-yard run into five or more, and he did that at key points throughout the night.
Of course, the best run of the night - and likely of Williams’ Notre Dame career - came on a play where the offensive line didn’t quite do its job and a group of Tar Heels met Williams into the backfield only to be dodged, ducked, dipped, and stiff-armed into the dirt as Williams reversed his field and raced down the sideline for a highlight-reel touchdown. Sometimes you just have to admire a big-time player making big-time plays, and Kyren proved once again that is a genuine treasure.
Let’s Be Buzzkills and Talk About the Defense
The biggest red flags for the Irish in this game came on the defensive side of the ball. Most of us expected Sam Howell, Josh Downs and co. to put up a fair number of points, particularly as Marcus Freeman’s defense has been vulnerable to big plays for a lot of this season and was missing Kyle Hamilton. The Irish did generate a lot of backfield havoc, but were often unable to pay it off as Howell avoided pressure and moved the chains running the ball. That big-play vulnerability showed up again, with the Tar Heels scoring touchdowns of 53, 33 and 31 yards, and a 41-yard pass down the sideline setting up their first score. Most worrisome for the Irish, they were not able to make halftime adjustments - the Heels mounted three touchdown drives of over 75 yards in the second half, and were balanced throughout the evening.
There were some defensive positives in this game - the Irish defense stiffened in the red zone and forced field goals on drives that could have given the Heels the lead, DJ Brown came up with a big interception in the place of Hamilton - and we all knew the Tar Heels were going to put up some points. Overall, we should be grateful the Irish offense was able to carry the day and the defense survived a tough assignment without its best player. But it’s worth pointing out that there is work to be done in shoring up some key vulnerabilities in this unit.