Notre Dame left Chapel Hill after their best offensive performance of the season and heads into the bye-week with an even record and some momentum. Powered by its run game, the Irish knocked off the previously unbeaten Tar Heels 45-32 in a much more lopsided game than the final score indicated. Let’s overreact to Notre Dame’s second win of the season.
We still don’t know Notre Dame’s ceiling, but we’re learning about its floor
We came into this game hoping that Notre Dame would just find a way to get the win and get out of Chapel Hill at .500 heading into their bye. Instead, for most of the second half, the Irish were cruising to a blowout until some late scores from the Tar Heels made the final score much closer than the game felt. Still, after the best performance of the year, we still don’t quite know what this team’s ceiling is. And that’s OK right now.
North Carolina is a bad defensive football. The Irish won’t face many worse defenses this season. Can the offense Notre Dame used to rack up 576 yards of offense work against teams with legit defenses? We don’t know yet. At this point, though, the people saying that a 4-8 style season similar to 2016 was in play after the loss to Marshall look to have greatly exaggerated the demise of Notre Dame football.
All the yards, points, and big plays against North Carolina were exactly what Notre Dame needed heading into the bye week, Sure, there’s stuff to clean up still, but Notre Dame’s offense needed this to build on for the rest of the season.
Notre Dame’s offensive line is starting to come together
The main reason Notre Dame could put up 576 yards and 45 points was because Notre Dame’s offensive line dominated the game. I’ll be interested to see the PFF grades for each of the linemen because, overall, the line controlled the game after a little shaky first drive. After that, the line settled in and started moving North Carolina around.
Notre Dame ran for 287 on 51 attempts on the afternoon (5.6 yards per attempt). Audric Estime led the Irish with 134 yards on 17 tries (7.9 ypc) with a pair of touchdowns. Chris Tyree had 80 on 15 with a score, and Logan Diggs added 50 on 10 attempts. That doesn’t happen without an offensive line controlling the game.
Again, North Carolina’s defense is bad. Very bad. That said, this looked like a completely different defensive line than the one that couldn’t open up anything two weeks ago against Marshall.
Drew Pyne looks sharp but wasn’t challenged
Drew Pyne didn’t look much like the quarterback who had trouble executing a snap in the first quarter of last week’s game against Cal. His start wasn’t ideal this week either, with back-to-back three and outs to start the game, but an early 3rd down conversion on a scramble seemed to wake him up.
His final numbers looked great. 24 of 34 for 289 with 3 touchdowns, but North Carolina didn’t challenge him at all for some reason. Instead, the Tar Heels were content at letting Pyne get easy completion after easy completion without having to go downfield all that much. He did more than last week when most of his passes were at the line or behind, but North Carolina
didn’t do what I expect future opponents to do and keep everyone close to the line and force Pyne to push it. Instead, North Carolina didn’t even totally take away Michael Mayer.
Even with the quality of the defense he just shredded aside, perhaps the most important stat from Pyne on Saturday was a zero, as in zero turnovers. Pyne didn’t turn it over for the second week in a row. That’s huge for someone making their first two career starts.
There will be tougher tests for Pyne in the future, but it’s hard to find a lot of fault in his performance Saturday against North Carolina.
Audric Estime will be a better back because of the late miscue
While Audric Estime had a monster game, it was almost even better. Estime’s fumble just inches from the goal-line ultimately turned what could have been a 52-26 lead into a closer than it appeared final of 45-32 after North Carolina scored on the ensuing drive. It was an unfortunate play for Estime and the Irish since he had such a monster game. Still, Estime will be a better back in the long term because of it.
Estime had the ball out in the danger zone near the goal-line on one of his earlier touchdowns, but UNC didn’t knock it out. RB coach Deland McCullough can use it as a teaching point for the young back.
Even with the fumble, though, Estime was a beast and gave a glimpse of what Notre Dame will be able to do to future opponents when driving to run out clocks. He is an absolute load to bring down late in games, and he was running with more conviction this week than we saw even weeks ago. Notre Dame fans should be excited about Audric Estime.
Linebacker play was improved this week
Notre Dame’s linebackers didn’t have a good first quarter of the season. But, that started to change a bit against one of the best offenses the Irish will face all season. Jack Kiser led Notre Dame with 9 tackles, and Marist Liufau was second with 6 tackles, including a 0.5 sack he shared with Isaiah Foskey. Prince Kollie got on the field finally and picked up a tackle for loss.
Like many areas of the team right now, there is still some clean-up work, but this was one of the most active games from the LB corps as a unit, and that’s encouraging.
Kollie will probably play more again in two weeks when the Irish are back in action because of JD Bertrand’s late targeting call that will cost him the first half of the BYU game. However, suspensions for targeting calls can be overturned after the fact this year now, so there’s a chance Bertrand might still be available.
Welcome to the party Rylie Mills
One of the most talked about players this off-season was defensive end, Rylie Mills. Through three weeks of the season, Mills was relatively quiet. But, he was anything but on Saturday. Mills picked up his first two sacks of the season and added another half tackle for loss. Mills had a favorable matchup this weekend, and he took advantage of it. Unlike last week when Notre Dame had multiple defensive linemen living in the Cal backfield, the d-line wasn’t quite as disruptive. Mills was. If that is the Rylie Mills Notre Dame gets in the final eight games; this defense will continue to get better.
The defense played well, but late breakdowns offer room for improvement
North Carolina came into the game averaging 50+ points a game. We knew they were going to score some points. Holding the Tar Heels to 14 points in the first half gave the Irish offense time to get rolling. Keeping them off the scoreboard until late in the 3rd quarter after halftime gave them time to build on their lead. The defense even finally got their first turnover of the season.
All in all, it was a solid performance from the defense against a high-powered offense. Still, there is clean-up for Al Golden and Marcus Freeman with the defense after a couple of late touchdowns that included some breakdowns. I was not a fan of Golden bringing pressure on UNC’s last touchdown on a 4th and 21 attempt, but it was only possible because Cam Hart got caught looking at the running back out of the backfield while letting Antonie Greene a free release for an easy touchdown.
North Carolina also had more explosive plays in the passing game than you’d ideally like including an 80-yard touchdown in the 3rd quarter that came right as it looked like Notre Dame was going to rip the game wide open.
Dan Orlovsky is maybe ESPN’s best talent
Listening to a game called by Dan Orlovsky is both fun and educational. Not only does he bring a certain level of energy to a broadcast that few color commentators are capable of, but the way he breaks things down during the game ends up teaching the viewers a lot about the game of football. One of the things I used to love about Mike Mayock on NBC games was how he’d break things down. Mayock wasn’t nearly as entertaining or energetic as Orlovsky, though.
ACC Refs are absolutely brutal
Yikes, the referees were just lousy yesterday. There were bad calls against both teams, and after a relatively quiet first half penalty-wise, it’s almost like the crew wanted to make sure we heard from them and that they had their say before it was over. They were brutal.
The late targeting call on JD Bertrand was bad, but I get why it was called on the field. It looked bad because Bertrand rocked the receiver, but it was a clean hit. What I don’t get is how the replay booth upheld it. Orlovsky went off on the replay crew for upholding the call because it wasn’t targeting. Now Bertrand is out for the first half of the BYU game unless it gets overturned after the fact – which can happen this year but does anyone have any faith that it will?