Notre Dame surpassed its win total from 2016 over the weekend with a 33-10 handling of North Carolina on the road. North Carolina hosted the Irish with a mash unit deeper than their actual depth chart. While the Irish didn’t have their A game offensively playing without starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush, they still won by 23 points over the undermanned Tar Heels. The win improved Notre Dame to 5-1 heading into their bye week with a date with USC on the horizon. Before we get there though, just crack open the post game 6-pack.
Ian Book was solid, but there shouldn’t even be a hint of QB controversy
Some thought that Ian Book might just come in and sling the ball over the field and create a quarterback controversy. Book completed 17 of 31 passes for 146 yards with a touchdown and two interceptions. Not bad numbers for a first career start by a redshirt freshman, but this was also against one of the worst defenses the Irish will face this year given all of North Carolina’s injuries.
Book did make some really nice timing throws that we haven’t seen Wimbush make yet and he demonstrated a pretty good feel for the position, but he couldn’t consistently move the chains against a bad defense. That’s not an indictment on Book either. He was making his first career start. It’s more to say that if healthy, Wimbush should be back in the starting the line. Had Book tossed for 3 TDs and 300 yards, the conversation during the bye week would have been awfully interesting.
What we did learn from Book this weekend is that Notre Dame can count on him to lead the offense if needed and if Wimbush were to miss any more time, Notre Dame can win with him at the helm. After watching Book and Wimbush now though, I can say I still feel more comfortable with Notre Dame’s chances against the likes of USC and Miami with Wimbush in the lineup.
Deon McIntosh has been the biggest surprise of the season on offense
In the preseason McIntosh was one of eight players I wrote about that we weren’t talking about enough. I never imagined that the redshirt frosh would have the kind of season that he is having though. Against the Tar Heels, McIntosh ran for 124 yards on 12 carries with two touchdowns. Playing in just four of six games, McIntosh is now third on the team in rushing behind Josh Adams and Wimbush. He’s also run for four touchdowns – just one fewer than Adams.
Some of McIntosh’s stats have come in garbage time, but against Michigan State, Miami, and now North Carolina, we’ve seen him play a big role as the injuries have been mounting in the Notre Dame backfield. More on that later.
What’s been really encouraging to see with McIntosh so far is how tough of a runner he is. He was considered to potentially be a tweener running back/wide receiver at one point, but he was bouncing off of tackles and picking up yards after contact on Saturday. Notre Dame is going to need more out of him this year as they running back corps has spent as much time in the infirmary as they have on the field.
Redzone perfection comes to an end
It was a fun ride while it lasted, but with Ian Book’s second interception of the day, Notre Dame’s red zone perfection came to an end. It was bound to happen eventually but it didn’t have to end when it did. Book’s interception looked like a bit of a miscommunication between he and 5th year senior Durham Smythe. Of course the miscommunication could have been avoided if Notre Dame made more of an effort to run the ball at that time, but I digress. The Irish did eventually turn to running the ball in the second half, but Book did have 25 passing attempts in the first half for some reason.
A second Notre Dame red zone trip resulted in no points, but it wasn’t one for any concern. Notre Dame killed the clock inside the North Carolina 10 after converting a late fourth down. So even without Book’s INT the streak would have come to a rather unceremonious ending.
The important thing here is that Notre Dame is still scoring at a great rate in the redzone for the first time in awhile. The touchdown percentage in the redzone has been even more encouraging.
Notre Dame’s defensive line is playing lights out right now
Notre Dame’s defensive line was the biggest question mark of the season, but the unit has had one of the more remarkable turnarounds from one season to the next that I can remember in a while at Notre Dame. The improvement in the wide receivers from 2004 to 2005 comes to mind actually. Against North Carolina, Jay Hayes and Jerry Tillery continued to play some grown man football. The pair combined for a safety at the end of the first half that turned out to be a turning point for the Irish. Prior to that safety the score was just 14-7 with time winding down in the first.
It wasn’t just Tillery and Hayes though. Khalid Kareem had a nice fumble recovery. Daelin Hayes got back on the sack sheet with his second sack of the season. The frosh tackles continue to be impressive for true freshmen.
Julian Okwara’s interception was ridiculous
You might be wondering why I didn’t mention Julian Okwara in the section above. Well, I thought he earned his own section after his ridiculous interception. Let’s look at it again.
Just an unbelievable play from Julian Okwara here. Just another example of a guy who has developed well under Mike Elko. pic.twitter.com/PSxE8mJKQI
— Ben Belden (@bbelden330) October 7, 2017
Okwara is playing really well right now and is only going to get better. He’s just a sophomore and with a bit more time working with Matt Balis, Notre Dame could have a future pass rushing terror on its hands. As is, he’s already pretty freakin’ good. I was a big fan of Okwara’s older brother Romeo and still wonder what we would have been able to do with a 5th year, but the younger Okwara could very well end up having a better collegiate career from what we’re seeing.
Notre Dame needs to get healthy during the bye
The Notre Dame running back corps has been hit with a slew of minor injuries this year. Dexter Williams has missed the last two games. Tony Jones Jr missed the Michigan State game. I hold my breathe every time Josh Adams gets tackled at this point. Luckily he rips off so many 60+ yard runs that doesn’t happen often, but still his “cranky” ankle limited him on Saturday again. Notre Dame hasn’t needed Adams in second halves of games since the Georgia game though so its tough to know how much the injury would have limited if he was needed.
Notre Dame lost Alex Bars for much of the UNC game as well with, you guessed it, an ankle sprain. The good news is that Bars’s injury is reportedly not a high ankle sprain and he should be back in the lineup in two weeks for the USC game.
The Irish have been reasonably lucky this season with injuries, but the minor injuries are starting to pile up a bit mainly because they have come at key positions. If Notre Dame is able to get Bars, Williams, Adams, and especially Wimbush healthy over the bye week, they will be set up well for their showdown with Southern Cal.