Continuing its 2017 redemption tour, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish had a relatively easy time on Saturday as they manhandled the rebuilding North Carolina Tar Heels by a 33-10 score. The improves their mark to 5-1 on the year and already puts them ahead of last season’s dismal four-win victory total.
The Irish accomplished this with a new face behind center in Ian Book, who was replacing Brandon Wimbush at quarterback. Wimbush’s status was questionable throughout the week because of an injured foot. Head coach Brian Kelly made the gametime decision to hold him out of a contest that was pretty much in hand by the end of the third quarter.
Below are some of the key aspects of the win at Chapel Hill:
Book ‘Em Ian
Wimbush’s absence allowed Book to make his first collegiate start, which led to him throwing for 146 yards and rushing for 45 more. In truth, Book’s passing efforts were primarily safe tosses in which the longest completion was 23 yards. A few attempts at going deep failed to pan out, though Book and tight end Alize Mack connected on six pass attempts.
While Book’s mobility in the pocket was nice to see, he didn’t emerge unscathed. Two interceptions, including one in the red zone, marred what was otherwise an effective performance. The effort helped give Wimbush an extra week of rest which, coupled with the bye week now on tap, will give him three weeks to get healthy for the USC Trojans.
D and More D
Even if Book had struggled, it’s likely the Notre Dame defense would have still been able to deliver a win. Shutting down the running game, the Irish pass rush also made life difficult for the Tar Heels’ quarterback, Chazz Surratt, sacking him twice in the first half.
Some stark numbers also offer a window into the defensive shutdown that took place. For example, North Carolina was unable to get a first down until nearly midway into the second quarter. The chief reason can be seen by their nine first quarter plays that managed to gain just seven yards.
A pair of bookend plays around halftime helped add five points to Notre Dame’s point total. With 28 seconds left in the half, Jay Hayes and Jerry Tillery trapped the Tar Heels’ Jordon Brown in the end zone for a safety. Then, on the second half’s first play, Julian Okwara blocked Surratt’s throw and intercepted it, helping set up a field goal.
Delivering the Rundown
With Book taking on the role of game manager, the Irish needed a strong game from their running backs and managed to get it with 341 yards on 57 carries. For the sixth time this season, Josh Adams broke off a huge run, dashing 73 yards for a second quarter touchdown that gave Notre Dame a 14-0 lead.
Adams ended the day with 118 yards on just 13 carries, numbers that ordinarily would have made him the standout. However, Deon McIntosh actually surpassed Adams’ work by rushing for 124 yards on just 12 carries, scoring a pair of touchdowns in the process.
Of course, the running game was fueled by the strong work of the offensive line, which continues to open up huge holes for the runners to exploit. With the schedule now set to see a jump in the degree of difficulty, the chance for this unit to truly shine is right in front of them.
Third Down Means No Down
North Carolina certainly didn’t have much to offer on offense, with their inability to convert on third down one of the chief reasons that they averaged roughly 130 yards less against the Irish than in their previous games.
Over the course of 60 minutes, the Tar Heels managed to move the chains on six of 18 third down tries and also failed on their lone fourth down attempt. On what turned into a rainy afternoon, Notre Dame forced North Carolina to punt nine times.
Still Smoothing Out the Kinks
As satisfying as a 23-point win on the road might be for the Irish faithful, Kelly and his coaching staff will no doubt zero in on the 10 penalties that were called on Notre Dame. While none were especially costly, such mistakes need to ironed out with more potent teams still on the docket.
Two that especially stood out were a false start on the opening Irish drive of the second half that turned a first-and-goal at the North Carolina four into a field goal by Justin Yoon. That was followed by a third down pass interference in the Tar Heels’ red zone that allowed them to eventually kick a field goal.
Having won five of their first six games, Notre Dame can now look forward to their bye week. However, given the opponent that awaits them when they return to the practice field, it’s doubtful that any sort of real break will be taken.
That opponent, of course, is the USC Trojans, who are 5-1 after an easy 38-10 win over conference rival Oregon State on Saturday. They face Utah next week before then heading to South Bend for a game that will presumably eliminate the loser from any further consideration for a playoff berth. Kickoff for that clash against the Irish is set for 7:30 ET.