The Notre Dame Fighting Irish may have been playing on Halloween Eve, but their 44-34 win over the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday night more resembled the Fourth of July. That’s because when the final gun sounded, the two teams had combined for 78 points and 1,082 yards of total offense, with both defenses seemingly having the night off.
Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell is in the conversation as a potential Heisman candidate and showed why by throwing for 341 yards and one score. In addition, he also rushed for 93 yards and a touchdown and proved hard to bring down. Still, Irish running back Kyren Williams led a running game that’s building momentum at the most important time of the year.
Below are some of the key aspects of the Notre Dame victory:
Picking Up Speed
The opening drive of the game for each team was a test run for the offensive fireworks that would take place over the remainder of the game. That offensive output was clearly evident by the time the second period concluded, with the two teams already combining for 439 yards of total offense and 23 first downs.
Both Notre Dame and North Carolina scored touchdowns on their second drives, then again matched each other with field goals. The Irish then managed to notch another touchdown in the final two minutes, with the Tar Heels coming close by marching to the Notre Dame nine before settling for another three-pointer to close out the half.
Getting flagged on each side of the ball during the second quarter proved to be deadly to North Carolina, which might have taken a lead into halftime had those miscues been avoided. The end result was four points being taken away from the Tar Heels on offense, along with allowing an Irish drive to continue and culminate with a touchdown.
In the first instance, Howell appeared to easily run in for North Carolina’s second touchdown of the night. However, a holding call was assessed and the Tar Heels were forced to settle for a field goal. On the ensuing drive, the Irish looked to be facing fourth down in the final minute of the half. That changed when Carolina received a face mask penalty, with Notre Dame immediately converting that into a scoring toss to Kevin Austin.
Big Play Flaws
One of the chief reasons why North Carolina managed to rack up 554 yards of offense on the night was because of Notre Dame’s glaring vulnerability when it came to big plays. The Irish managed to give up five plays of 30 yards or more, with two of those efforts taking place on running plays. In the latter cases, Ty Chandler broke away for a 53-yard touchdown run, while Howell managed to race 31 yards for a fourth-quarter score.
Entering the game, Notre Dame defenders were presumably zeroed in on Tar Heels wide receiver Josh Downs, who is Howell’s favorite receiver. Whatever focus they did have on Downs didn’t work, since the wideout finished with 10 catches for 142 yards, including receptions of 41 and 31 yards, respectively. The most embarrassing error on the night came in the third quarter when North Carolina wideout Antoine Green was all alone on an easy 33-yard touchdown scamper.
Kyren’s Big Night
With the weather getting cooler, Williams is doing just the opposite, delivering his biggest game of the season. He rushed for 202 yards on 21 carries, an amount that was highlighted by a 91-yard dash down the sidelines. That particular score gave the Irish some breathing room with a 38-27 advantage early in the final quarter.
Williams was the central component of a Notre Dame ground game that chewed up a season-high 298 yards, marking the first time this year that they’ve broken the 200-yard threshold. The clearest example of this unit’s improvement can be in a simple comparison. In their first five games for 2021, Irish runners managed to gain a total of only 404 yards, an amount that put an additional burden on the passing game. In a steep contrast, the last three contests have witnessed the emergence of a solid ground attack that’s amassed 641 yards.
Notre Dame will remain at home for the third week in a row next Saturday afternoon when they host the Navy Midshipmen. That game will mark the renewal of their interrupted matchup. Last season’s clash was originally scheduled for Ireland, then Annapolis, only to eventually be canceled altogether. The Midshipmen will enter the game with a 2-6 record after picking up a comeback victory on the road on Friday night against Tulsa. This meeting between the schools has been dominated by the Irish, who hold a commanding 79-13-1 advantage.