Notebook: Tar Heels tax Notre Dame defense

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

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SOUTH BEND — For the first time all season Notre Dame’s inexperience showed up on defense, even when it came to the reigning national (Lott Trophy) Defensive Player of the Week.

Sophomore linebacker Jaylon Smith, looking All-America-esque in his first five games, appeared more like a former outside linebacker learning how to play inside Saturday at Notre Dame Stadium as he labored for four tackles in sixth-ranked Notre Dame’s 50-43 edging of heavy underdog North Carolina.

The Irish safeties noticeably struggled too and the surprisingly bullying defensive line got pushed around at times by an unsung North Carolina offensive front as the Tar Heels (2-4) piled up 510 yards, the most since Alabama’s dismantling of the vaunted 2012 defensive unit (529 yards) in that season’s BCS National Championship Game.

North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams accounted for 458 of those yards — rushing, passing and even receiving.

So does top-ranked Florida State (6-0) have a blueprint now to neutralize Irish first-year defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s magic next Saturday when the two teams meet in Tallahassee, Fla.?

“Totally different animal,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said, presiding over the 32nd 6-0 team in Notre Dame history and second in three seasons.

“The offense is a totally different situation for us in terms of defending it. And a lot of North Carolina's offense is predicated about (Williams) running the football. We tackled poorly. We executed poorly. We’ve got to coach better. We just got to do a better job all the way around.”

The Irish came into the game ranked in the top 30 nationally in all four major defensive categories, including third in scoring defense and ninth in rushing defense.

Middle linebacker Joe Schmidt had a career-high 11 tackles for the Irish on a day when the Irish recorded zero sacks and didn’t get into a lot of their niche packages because of Carolina’s fast-tempo offense made subbing difficult.

“I made it pretty clear coming into the season that there were going to be some games that we needed to outscore some people,” Kelly said, “and I felt like on the schedule this was one of them.”

But he expects a defense that smothered Stanford to the tune of 205 total yards the week before to be a factor in next Saturday’s showdown.

“Look, last week, and I told them, you're going to have some of these games. You shake it off,” Kelly said. “You go back to practice. They've done some great things this year. They will be ready to play their very best against Florida State.

“But the nice part about it is we got great film and great teaching off of another win. That's the best thing about it.”

Salute to Daniels

Will Fuller extended his right hand to the sky and held up three fingers following one of his two touchdowns Saturday. It was both a nod to the wildly popular “Hunger Games” book and film series and a salute to suspended teammate DaVaris Daniels.

“Me and DaVaris are real close. He did that last year,” Fuller said. “We were talking on Thursday, and he asked me if I could do that. I told him I would.”

Fuller had to find the end zone first. He did so on a 13-yard catch in the first quarter, but the celebration didn’t come until Fuller scored again on a 35-yard reception in the third quarter.

In the moments following Fuller’s touchdown celebration, his name became one of the top 10 trending topics on Twitter in the United States. That news took Fuller by surprise after the game.

“That’s awesome,” he said. “I did not know that.”

Speaking of Daniels, one of the five ND players who have been held out of games, practices and team meetings since August during the ongoing academic fraud probe process, his father, Phillip, tweeted the following on Twitter after Saturday’s game:

“For those who are still asking, we still have not heard anything so the wait continues. #Irish”

Personnel matters

• Grad student safety Austin Collinsworth made his first start of the season and 12th of his career Saturday, taking Elijah Shumate’s spot at strong safety, but he didn’t come close to finishing.

Collinsworth left the game in the first quarter with a dislocated shoulder and did not return.

“We'll get an MRI evaluated and see where we are once we get further medical diagnosis on him,” Kelly said.

• After ND quarterback Everett Golson took a shot in the second half that had him wobbling to the sidelines, Kelly had backup Malik Zaire warming up on the sideline, but didn’t end up inserting him into the game.

“We're always looking to see whether our quarterback is affected medically, and so we're immediately in communication with our medical staff,” Kelly said. If he's at all not able to continue because of any kind of injury, we have to pull him.

“That's not my call. That's our medical team's. So we're cognizant of that. So Malik has to stay ready and be ready in case we have to put him in that situation.

(“Golson) felt like he was fine. There was no issues. He was able to continue to play. But Malik's keyed in on that, to be ready to go if he has to go in right away.”

By the numbers

• North Carolina sophomore Ryan Switzer, the nation’s leading punt returner in 2013 (20.9 yards per return) was had to minus-13 yards on three returns by the Irish (in the first half).

• The 93 combined points are the most for a Notre Dame contest since 1914 when the Irish defeated Rose Poly 102-0.

• North Carolina’s field goal at 3:37 of the third quarter marked the first points that the Irish have allowed this year in the third quarter, The Irish later gave up a TD in the period after a Golson turnover.

• The 43 points scored by North Carolina marked the most points scored by an opponent in a Notre Dame win. The previous high was 42 by Hawaii in a 48-42 Irish victory Nov. 30, 1991 at Hawaii.

• Kelly is now 12-2 against current ACC schools while at Notre Dame.

• Senior linebacker Ben Councell played in some goal-line situations Saturday and recorded his first tackle of the year.

ehansen@ndinsider.com

574-235-6112

Twitter: @ehansenNDI

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Notre Dame’s James Onwualu, left, tackles North Carolina’s Brian Walker during the Notre Dame vs. North Carolina college football game on Saturday, Oct. 11, 2014, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. SBT Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN