Beyond the Boxscore: Notre Dame Wins with Defense, Running Again

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.

Next Up

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.

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  1. simply saying u want a new coach every week WHO,S COMMING? Name who wants the academic hassles, the inability to get top talent because their academic scores are NOT good enough! URBAN MEYER turned the job down 12 years ago for those reasons! WE ALL KNOW KELLYS NOT A GREAT COACH! SHOW US WHO,S NEXT! WA WA WA!

  2. Gary Anderson just did for OSU what Charlie Weis did NOT do for ND.

    Why did he do it? Because he is a man of honor, because he’s confident that he’s a good enough coach to succeed somewhere else, and he isn’t a quick buck a-hole.

    As for Brian Kelly: a ladder-climbing, money-grubbing fraud.

  3. Five of our last six opponents are ranked. Does anyone know if ND has ever faced a gauntlet like that before? This could be likened to Patton’s Third…on forced march over a several day period engaging more enemy units than any other US force in history, then going right into the Battle of the Bulge! Of course that was life and death…our team’s ITER is not.

    BGC ’77 ’82

  4. Love Josh Adams but one guy who seems to be getting overlooked is Deon McIntosh. I know that he was mentioned above that’s good) but he seems to really have a nose for the end zone. Is he another big star waiting to happen?

    Go Irish!!!

  5. Brutal schedule lies ahead. After SC and NC St., beware of Wake as a let down game before heading to Miami.
    At least DC Elko is familiar with what Wake has, so there’s that.
    Little comment on Niles Morgan’s injury concerns me. Maybe it’s too soon to know.
    I’ve read it was a hand injury, then Kelly said it was a contusion on his chest.
    Martini and Coney have played well, but Captain Morgan is needed (as is ‘ol reliable Cousin Jack Daniels, but I digress)
    Pre-season, I read frequently how the WRs and TEs were strengths and the safeties and DL were question marks.
    So far, more the opposite, although the TEs are at least more involved than last year, especially as excellent blockers.
    St. Brown was limping and less than extraordinary. Kelly said it was cramps.
    Also, it was interesting how, after two consecutive miscues by Bivin after Bars left the field and never returned, ND brought in Kramer to play guard along side Hainsey despite Kramer being one of the top tackles recruited and Hainsey being a highly regarded guard coming out of HS last year

    We know Kelly always downplays injuries; case in point-Dexter Williams is still out, but both McIntosh and Holmes looked good, despite vs. injury-riddled inept NC D’ isn’t much of a measure.
    So it’ll be worth watching to see if Bars and Morgan will be out, and whether St. Brown is also playing injured.

    1. With the emergence of McIntosh I think the window of significant playing time for Dexter has closed barring any injuries to
      Adams and Mc.

      1. Hard to think Williams lose PT considering how effective he’s been this year. I can’t remember when the Irish have had so much depth at rb, and overall depth for that natter.

      2. Sure. Because BK is a good recruiter (except for the fullback position).

        La Crosse, IN

  6. IF Notre Dame can win there next four games all against tough opponents they will find themselves right in the mix of a playoff
    spot. Lose one and its over. They will need the luck of the Irish to pull it off and we havent seen that since the 2012 regular
    season where they were lucky on many occasions.

    1. Jeff: By elimination, the defense appears to again be the main weapon for ND this year.
      Like 2012, no one saw that coming.
      And that D didn’t turn into a program characteristic, or a system strength. It was a one-year wonder.
      And it got Kelly a raise and extension, instead of being pilloried for arrogantly courting the NFL. Mr. A hole.

      So is another crazy fluky season (IF they win out…not happenin’) good enough for ND fans this year? Or would they rather follow a well-coached, predictably sound football program?

  7. I thought with Book starting, the run game wouldn’t be as good, whIle the passing game would be better. Wrong on both accounts. Wimbush being healthy and playing and this team puts up 50 no problem. Still, all you can ask for from a backup QB in less than ideal weather conditions is to not do anything to lose the game, and he managed that.

    1. Well, Andrew, you are correct, but I have a different view. I never regard the season as a snapshot, but a narrative, and the development of each team, and the players and units therein, is organic and dynamic. Things are ALWAYS changing and in flux, NEVER static.

      Yesterday benefitted both Book and Wimbush and therefore the entirety of the team. Book was given his moment, some good, some bad, but now, if he is shoved off the bench into the breach, he will be better prepared. His coach, Rees, has learned much from the roller coaster of being a Notre Dame backup and sometime starter. They will study and correct and eliminate (some) of the mistakes, and be able to leverage the upside. Wimbush got to “watch the game” and it slows down from the sideline.

      Competent backups are rare in college football. It is not the NFL. But against the remaining six regular season opponents, the backup quarterback box would be checked in Notre Dame’s favor. It is a long way until Thansgiving Saturday in Palo Alto. Even if Wimbush were to get dinged up for a series, neither the other 10 players on the offense nor Book will be frightened.

      For me, the takeaway of the first part of the season, and it will only gestate (again, my hypothesis is that nothing is static, everything organic and dynamic) during the two week hiatus is that some of the young defenders, Kareem, Okwara, Coleman, Elliott, Hayes, Tagovailoa, Crawford Hinish, have seen enough to believe both in themselves and the defensive scheme/techniques/coaching. We play a few slick offenses in the second half of the season. (Only Wake is really challenged offensively).

      So the defensive numbers may deteriorate a tad, but it is a tenable hypothesis that the defensive effectiveness and game control, relative to the competition, may increase, and significantly so. It is no longer “an experiment with new coaches.” Now it is the way the defense plays, restoring, at long last, the “D” in ND.

      Go Irish

      1. Good words Duranko. Do you still write articles for UHND? Enjoyed them in the past.

      2. Oooooh…the season as an “organic narrative”.
        Welcome to the snowflake Olympics!
        Dude take your wife to Pottery Barn.

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