Notre Dame beat the North Carolina Tar Heels 44-34 last Saturday night at Notre Dame Stadium on the backs of an excellent offensive performance from Kyren Williams and Jack Coan. The defense, however, left a lot to be desired and at some points looked unprepared for what Tar Heel Quarterback Sam Howell brought to the table. Follow along as we break it all down.
From an EPA/Play perspective Notre Dame was the better team thanks to a couple of high-value plays. Kyren Williams’ touchdown run and Sam Howell’s interception were too much for the Tar Heels to overcome. But on a play-by-play basis, North Carolina was actually much better at generating plays with positive EPA, posting a 62% Success Rate through the air while their 56% Rushing Success Rate matched Notre Dame’s passing. Although Notre Dame covered the spread and won by multiple scores, it wasn’t as dominating of a performance as you might think.
The last two weeks have been the most complete performances we have seen from the Irish offense all season. Let’s start with Kyren Williams, where there isn’t really much to say that you already don’t know. The offensive line was fine but Cain Madden was the only player had a PFF Run Block Grade above 70 (average) in this game. The stat that best encapsulates his game was over 170 of his rushing yards came after contact, which comes out to an average of over 7 per carry. He’s a remarkable player that we will really enjoy watching over the next five games before he moves onto the NFL.
Not to be outdone, Jack Coan had an amazing day and was sneakily more efficient and productive than Kyren, posting his highest PFF Grade while producing 0.48 EPA/Play and a 56% Success Rate. The quick game passing we have been calling for has finally arrived and has worked even better than we could have hoped. As we expected given North Carolina’s lack of pass rush, we did see a couple more shots downfield, with Coan’s aDOT going from 7.1 last week to 7.8. But clearly the focal point is on the receivers winning in space closer to the line of scrimmage and gaining as much yardage after the catch as they can. Lorenzo Styles continues to be a revelation, and even with the drop he still averaged over 1 EPA/Play. He seems to be a perfect fit for this style of offense and has already showcased his YAC prowess and potential at the beginning of his career.
Play-Action was incredibly efficient against North Carolina but passing overall was as well. And while their defense isn’t anything to write home about, they are much closer to average than to what they faced in USC the week prior. A dominating performance against weaker competition is what Notre Dame fans have wanted to see for years and, offensively at least, it’s exactly what we got.
Understanding the fact that this was one of the best offenses Notre Dame will face all season and that the Tar Heels have a future 1st Round Pick under center, this was Marcus Freeman and the defense’s worst game of the year. They seemed to be woefully unprepared for Sam Howell’s rushing ability, as he led the Tar Heels with 0.46 EPA/Designed Rush and an INSANE 86% Success Rate. And for some inexplicable reason it seemed like they refused to put a Spy on him when he dropped back to pass, despite half of his attempts coming into the game coming on scrambles.
Not only that, but the Irish defense didn’t really contain Josh Downs through the air or Ty Chandler on the ground, a discouraging trend from last week where instead of stopping one of the opposition’s strengths they chose to defend neither.
Maybe this is just elite talent making elite plays and the defense is just getting beat by good offense. And missing Kyle Hamilton definitely plays a large part. But USC was still successful in the brief part of the game where Hamilton was still playing two weeks ago, and having seen the same story play out in back-to-back weeks they’re starting to lose the benefit of the doubt.
This is still a great defense but they have been exposed the last couple weeks and there needs to be a better adjustment pre-game of how they are going to defend that particular opponent each week.
The first chart is concerning but I’m more willing to chalk that up to an elite quarterback taking advantage of a solid but nothing special secondary. The second chart is more interesting, as it’s seemingly the first time all year where Notre Dame struggled to defend the run with lighter boxes. A possible explanation is Sam Howell added an extra number to the equation that makes this a tougher proposition. But it’s something to keep an eye on moving forward in terms of possible regression to the mean or if as we’re getting into the later months if the wear and tear of the season is starting to show itself.
Despite what in our opinion was the worst defensive performance of the season, it didn’t end up mattering because Notre Dame had its best offensive game on the year. There are some things to monitor defensively as the regular season comes to a close, but nothing to be alarmed about yet. And with the Irish facing some of the worst defenses on the schedule over the next 4 games the last month should be relatively easy. Although with Notre Dame Football nothing ever is.