Notre Dame survives North Carolina threat
SOUTH BEND — It was a harsh and relentless reminder of what could have been Saturday.
Separated back in August by a mere six spots from Notre Dame in the preseason AP college football poll, North Carolina has been the epitome of talent shaken instead of stirred, self-inflicted regression and stagnant chemistry.
A destiny that could very well have befallen now-sixth ranked Notre Dame without benevolent turns like defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s arrival, cornerback Cody Riggs’ transfer in, head coach Brian Kelly’s ability to keep the Frozen Five academic saga from festering and preoccupying, and quarterback Everett Golson becoming inspired instead of embittered by his separation from the team and the university last fall.
On a day when Notre Dame Stadium celebrated its 84th birthday, the gag gift the Irish received from 17-point underdog North Carolina was a not-so-friendly warning of how fragile their climb into the national playoff discussion still is in a 50-43 survival in the facility’s 441st and highest-scoring game ever.
Irish head coach Kelly couldn’t safely exhale until last week’s fourth-quarter end zone hero, senior tight end Ben Koyack, collected a bounding and well-covered onside kick with 45 seconds left.
“Lots of points, lots of penalties, lots of turnovers, lots of things to correct,” Kelly said, “but lots of resolve on Notre Dame's part. Those kids keep playing.
“Sometimes it's not perfect, but they know how to win.”
And because of that, ND’s visit to No. 1 Florida State in Tallahassee next Saturday takes on big-picture significance. It’s not only a chance for redemption from this Saturday’s scare, but an opportunity to merge a heretofore dream season with reality.
The Irish (6-0), 8-16-1 all time against No. 1s, will face a top-ranked team for the first time since the “Bush Push” loss to USC on Oct. 15, 2005, that is if No. 3 Mississippi State’s 38-23 takedown of No. 2 Auburn Saturday isn’t enough to bump Florida State (6-0) from the top spot.
ND’s most recent win over a No. 1 team was the 31-24 victory over Florida State in 1993 – the same year Irish quarterback Everett Golson was born.
ESPN’s GameDay will be on hand, unofficially designating the matchup as the epicenter of the college football universe.
No Lee Corso on Saturday around the Irish team, but a still impressive array of bowl scouts (Cotton, Orange, Belk, Capital One Bowl and Russell Athletic) saw sophomore running back Tarean Folston help rally the Irish from a 36-35 fourth-quarter deficit with a nine-yard scoring pass, a six-yard touchdown run and plenty of fortitude in between.
It marked just the sixth time in 16 games the Irish trailed going into the fourth quarter under Kelly that Notre Dame was able to come back to win.
On a day when Golson pocked some big offensive numbers with multiple turnovers for the second week in a row, Folston compensated and finished with 98 yards on 18 carries, 71 yards on five receptions and the game ball from Kelly.
And every bit of that was necessary, because that nation’s No. 21 total defense and No. 3 scoring defense yielded the most total yards (510) since the Alabama shredding (529) in the 2012 BCS National Championship Game. They also ceded the most points ever in an Irish victory.
“As we work through the three-running back situation, we got into a really good rhythm with (Folston) in there, tough yardage, breaking tackles, running through tackles,” Kelly said, “and that's what we've been asking the backs to do, is to run through tacklers.
“They're physical, strong backs. And once we saw he was going to run in that kind of manner and demeanor, he was going to get more carries.”
It almost still wasn’t enough to overcome North Carolina quarterback Marquise Williams, who might have been watching from the bench had Golson stayed with his original verbal commitment and ended up enrolling at North Carolina in January of 2011.
Williams threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns, ran for a game-high 132 yards on 18 carries and another TD, and caught a 23-yard scoring pass from wide receiver Quinshad Davis that put the Tar Heels (2-4) up 36-35 with 3:11 left in the third quarter.
“What went wrong? Nothing went wrong, he's pretty good,” said Kelly of the player who accounted for more yards in total offense by himself (458) than any of ND’s first five opponents did and more than twice the 205 yards Stanford managed last week.
“He's difficult to defend. Great runner, threw the ball effectively, we couldn't tackle him.”
Golson, meanwhile, got tackled, banged and hit way more than Kelly’s liking, which may help explain at least one of his three turnovers on Saturday.
Two early ones helped put the Irish in an early hole. On the third play from scrimmage, UNC defensive end Jessie Rogers broke through ND’s pass protection and separated Golson from the ball with a big hit. Free safety Sam Smiley covered it at the ND 37.
Three plays later, former ND recruit Elijah Hood — a freshman running back — blasted into the end zone from six yards out for a 7-0 Tar Heel 92 seconds into the game.
It turned out to be one of the few highlights for Hood, North Carolina’s second-leading rusher on the season, who finished with 27 yards on 17 carries and fumbled to set up an Irish score.
UNC was knocking on the door to make it 10-0 on its next possession but Nick Weiler pushed a 34-yard field goal attempt wide left. Two plays later, Golson threw a pick-6 to North Carolina linebacker Jeff Schoettner, a former walk-on, and Carolina piled on with a 14-0 lead with 8:48 left in the first quarter.
The Irish finally stopped the scoreboard shock with a five-play, 88-yard, 1:34 drive with Will Fuller capping it with his sixth TD reception of the season, this one a 13-yarder. The Irish finished a 21-point run by outgaining Carolina 223-15 in that stretch.
But the Tar Heels never went completely away. And after Golson’s second lost fumble of the game, fifth in the last three weeks and nine in 17 career starts, North Carolina surged ahead, 36-35, on the very next play – Williams’ pass reception, actually his second TD catch of his career.
“I come in here kind of every week for the last couple of weeks saying I have to do a better job,” said Golson, who still managed 300 yards passing and three TDs and another 71 rushing yards around the miscues.
“Right now it’s time for me to stop saying that and time for me to put my words into action and actually do that.”
Golson did engineer two late scoring drives, the go-ahead one aided by a roughing-the-snapper penalty when the Irish were punting on fourth-and-18 from their own 32. The penalty gave them a first down at their 47.
Folston got most of the work from that point and Koyack caught a two-point conversion pass from Golson. Cole Luke’s interception of Williams, his third pick in the past two weeks, gave ND another scoring opportunity.
“I just left a team that had its guts ripped out right now,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said.
There was some of that feeling in the Irish locker room too, especially from Golson.
“I got in his face a little bit about the first interception,” Kelly said of an in-game discussion. “He's above that interception. That's a route that he's seen a million times.
“There were some things there that I feel much better about that he did later in the game and got through his progressions. … That could shut some quarterbacks down. He took the adversity and got better as the game went on.”