Beyond the Boxscore: Notre Dame Passes Last Big Regular Season Test

The Notre Dame Fighting Irish stayed undefeated on Friday with a 31-17 road win over the North Carolina Tar Heels. The victory pushes the Irish season mark to 9-0 with two more regular-season matchups on the schedule.

The early going had all the makings of an offensive shootout in the works but quickly calmed down as both teams made some necessary adjustments. That was true concerning the Irish over the final three periods.

Below are some of the critical aspects of the Notre Dame win:

First Quarter Fireworks

Two strong offenses delivered an immediate impact when Notre Dame and North Carolina each put up 14 points during the opening 15 minutes of action. The Irish had some early trouble handling the Tar Heels’ potent attack, with a pair of seven-play drives racking up a total of 125 yards, resulting in a pair of touchdowns and two early leads.

Note Dame answered the two North Carolina touchdowns with scores of their own, wasting little time with their second tally. That was delivered on a four-play drive that came with just over a minute left in the opening period and took just 1:54. From that point, the scoreboard got a breather for the rest of the half, with each team only managing a field goal.

Defensive Clamp

During the first quarter of play, North Carolina racked up 147 yards worth of offense and looked to be enroute to another afternoon of production on that side of the ball. However, when the final seconds ticked off, Notre Dame’s defense had only allowed 151 yards of additional offense over the final three quarters.

One of the reasons for the Irish domination over that stretch was the team’s pass rush, with Notre Dame ending the day with five sacks. Yet the run defense also delivered, allowing only 25 yards over those last three quarters, which forced Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell to go to the air.

Book Smart

Quarterback Ian Book had another strong overall game, completing 23 of 33 for 279 yards and one score while also gaining 48 yards on eight runs. He also extended his streak of avoiding interceptions, with the Irish committing no turnovers during the contest.

While Book was sacked twice on the afternoon, his fast footwork helped avoid several other potential takedowns by North Carolina. In some cases, that movement simply involved avoiding oncoming rushers and finding an open receiver, with the revamped Irish offensive line having some issues against a strong Tar Heel pass rush. That led to multiple instances of Book flipping a pass to a Notre Dame receiver and keeping the ball moving forward.

Flagged Down

Notre Dame has had issues in recent games when it comes to avoiding penalty flags. Against North Carolina, they were nabbed four times for 24 yards, with much of that yardage coming on a personal foul against Kyle Hamilton that ultimately led to North Carolina’s final points of the game, a field goal in the second quarter.

The Tar Heels were not as lucky when it came to maintaining the needed discipline to pull the upset bid. They finished the afternoon with nine penalties that cost them 90 yards. Two of the penalties came on pass interference calls that eventually saw the Irish come away with a total of 10 points on those respective series.

Main Man McKinley

In his most productive game of the season, Notre Dame wide receiver Javon McKinley grabbed six passes from Book for 135 yards. Two of his catches accounting for 96 of those yards, with both of those receptions coming on the first play of drives. The first resulted in the second Irish touchdown, while the other ended not-so-positively with a Jonathan Doerer 32-yard missed field goal.

The performance by McKinley marked the fourth consecutive game that he’s caught at least five passes. His 21 grabs in those four contests are in contrast to his nine grabs during his first four appearances in 2020. One odd fact about McKinley’s game-breaking talents is that he continues to search for his first scoring toss of the year.

Next Up

Notre Dame returns home on December 5 for their first matchup under the Golden Dome in nearly a month. Their opponent will be the Syracuse Orangemen, who will be making their first visit to the Irish’s turf in 2008, picking up a tight 24-23 win during the Charlie Weis era. The Orangemen are currently 1-8 entering their Saturday home game against North Carolina St. and are currently in the midst of a six-game winning streak. Such numbers will make Notre Dame a huge favorite, though the Irish will simply be satisfied to emerge with another victory entering the regular-season finale.

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