Hey, there fellow fans of a .500 football team! The Notre Dame Fighting Irish got back to even this week with a solid road win over the North Carolina Tar Heels, and now get to return home and enjoy some cheeseburgers - maybe some pulled-pork sandwiches as well to keep the Carolina energy going.
Notre Dame did a lot of good things on Saturday. It wasn’t the toughest opponent and it doesn’t erase everything we saw in the first few weeks, but this team showed marked improvement and appears headed in the direction of respectability. With the bye upcoming and a big game to follow against the BYU Cougars, the Irish have given themselves a big opportunity to turn their season around.
The Offensive Line Achieves Acceptability
After showing signs of improvement the previous week against the California Golden Bears, the Irish o-line took another step forward by looking downright adequate against a soft Tar Heels defense. Where the Irish in the past few weeks were getting pushed back and outmaneuvered, this week they were holding their own: creating pockets, moving the line of scrimmage forward and carving out lanes. We finally got to see the different skill sets of Notre Dame’s entire stable of running backs, who for the first time this season were not running into tacklers in the backfield. Audric Estime in particular showed off what he could do to a tackler when he had a head of steam, and it was - with one notable exception - glorious.
A pessimistic person might gainsay here by pointing to the softness of the Heels’ defense, to which I would respond merely by pointing out that this line was being manhandled by Marshall only two weeks ago. There is an obvious improvement in the level of play here - indeed, the more pertinent pessimistic question might be where the hell was this against Marshall? - that will help the Irish immensely down the stretch.
Pyne Standing Tall
Empowered by his offensive line play and a dominant running game, Drew Pyne got comfortable and led by far Notre Dame’s most impressive passing effort of the season (24-for-34, 289 yards, 3 TD). The junior also showed improved downfield ability, completing a pair of passes over 30 yards, and impressive ball distribution. Whatever his mental hang-ups were heading into last week’s game, Pyne seemed to have worked them out and showed he could be a competent facilitator of this offense, which is frankly all Notre Dame has needed for the last three weeks.
Pyne’s coaching seemed vastly improved in this game as well. Carolina’s defense may be as soft as tissue paper, but someone still had to call the plays to tear them apart. Tommy Rees did just that. The Irish consistently stayed ahead of schedule in easy down-and-distance, and wisely leaned on their playmakers in Michael Mayer, Audric Estime, Chris Tyree, and Lorenzo Styles. Logan Diggs finally broke out as well, with Rees seeming to finally find the right role for him in the offense. It is of course irritating that it took four weeks for this offense to find its stride, but after the first couple games I’m just happy that it has at all.
Getting the Stops that Mattered
On the defensive side, this was Notre Dame’s least statistically impressive game. Most people expected North Carolina’s prolific offense to put up more points than Notre Dame’s other opponents this year, and there were some genuinely concerning aspects in play: in particular the vulnerability of the Irish to big plays in the second half (Antoine Greene caught touchdown passes of 64 and 80 yards).
With that said, the larger performance of the Irish defense in this game was better than the box score might indicate. First: despite their eventual dominance, the Irish did not start this game well offensively, beginning with a 3-and-out and a missed field goal. With the way the Heels started offensively and their overall offensive momentum, the Irish could easily have ended up down two or three possessions early here. But a couple key stops kept the Irish within seven while offense get settled in.
The Irish then built their big lead in no small part through strong defensive play during a key stretch in the late-second to mid-third quarters, during which the Irish turned a 14-14 tie into a 38-14 rout, with the offense exploiting multiple punts and the first forced turnover of the season. North Carolina’s aforementioned big plays took place after that stretch, at which point the game was more or less decided. Would it have been nice to hold the Heels to fewer points and win by a wider margin? Of course, but it would also be a mistake to let a couple blown plays in garbage time make us forget what was otherwise a solid effort.
2-2 is not where any of us wanted to be at this point in the season, but with where we were a couple weeks ago it feels like deliverance. There’s a whole lot of season left, and now I’m starting to think we might just enjoy it.