Defense, offensive backups step up as Notre Dame gives Tar Heels the boot
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Convincing wins shouldn’t happen with a backup quarterback making his first career start and a fourth-string running back being asked to carry the load in a two-score game.
The names changed, but the recipe stayed the same for Notre Dame in a 33-10 win at North Carolina. The Irish took control of the game once again with a punishing running game and a greedy defense.
Redshirt freshman Ian Book stepped in at quarterback with Brandon Wimbush sidelined by a foot strain. Redshirt freshman Deon McIntosh became the lead back in the second half while Josh Adams dealt with dehydration.
The results weren’t overwhelming at first, but No. 21 Notre Dame (5-1) pounded away at the struggling Tar Heels (1-5).
“We needed some resolve and some mental toughness,” said head coach Brian Kelly, “and we showed that today against an opponent that was obviously ready to play.”
After Wimbush clearly wasn’t ready to go Saturday, Book was put into the starting lineup. Kelly said he had suspected Book would have to start as early as Thursday, but monitoring Wimbush made it uncertain most of the week.
“It was kind of off and on. Wednesday (Wimbush) didn’t look particularly good,” Kelly said. “Thursday he looked a little better. Friday he had the urge that he wanted to play. It kind of went back and forth. Then today, he just didn’t have it in him. He just didn’t feel great. He didn’t have any bounce.”
The offense started a bit shaky without him. On the first drive of the game, tight end Durham Smythe was flagged for a false start, wide receiver Cam Smith fumbled a handoff attempt from Book and the Irish were called for an illegal substitution. The five-play series netted only 13 yards and the Irish were forced to punt.
Punting became the early fad as the teams combined for five punts in the first quarter. But the Irish offense started to find momentum on the last drive of the quarter that continued into the start of the second. Book rolled to his right to find Smith for a six-yard touchdown completion to cap a 15-play, 80-yard drive.
That series seemed to trigger a return of Notre Dame’s old offense. On the next possession, Josh Adams sprinted for a 73-yard touchdown — the sixth run of at least 59 yards this season — and he surpassed 100 yard rushing before halftime for the fourth time in six games.
North Carolina’s offense wouldn’t find its first first down until midway through the second quarter. Still, the Tar Heels stayed in the game after Book threw an interception on a deep pass from out of his own end zone. North Carolina safety Myles Dorn gave his team possession at Notre Dame’s 47-yard line.
Quarterback Chazz Surratt cashed in on the opportunity with a 25-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who had dropped a touchdown opportunity two plays earlier.
Notre Dame’s defense and special teams combined to force North Carolina into a safety in the final minute before halftime. Tyler Newsome’s 43-yard punt slowly rolled to the UNC one-yard line where it was downed by the Irish.
That left North Carolina to work out of its own end zone. After an incomplete pass to start the drive, the Tar Heels tried to run to the right out of shotgun, but the Irish blew up the play with defensive tackle Jerry Tillery and defensive end Jay Hayes, who engulfed running back Jordon Brown for two points.
“What I wanted to do was get out of the half without any problems,” said UNC head coach Larry Fedora. “We were going to run a basic zone play, and we turned some guys loose and they hit us in the backfield.”
The Irish took control early in the third quarter. Sophomore defensive end Julian Okwara batted a Surratt pass into the air and caught it for an interception. The turnover, the second forced by the Irish in the game, was converted into a 29-yard Justin Yoon field goal.
“Our defensive line took over the game,” said Irish rover Drue Tranquill. “They absolutely dominated the front. When you have guys on your defensive line making plays like Julian Okwara did, like Jay Hayes did getting in the backfield and getting us a safety, they completely moved the line of scrimmage. When North Carolina is forced to play with a line of scrimmage two yards in the backfield, they’re not going to be successful.”
Notre Dame's defensive line helped the Irish tally 11 quarterback hurries, five tackles for a loss and two sacks.
McIntosh extended Notre Dame’s lead two drives later with a 35-yard touchdown run. Adams left the game after a pair of runs early in the third quarter. He was seen on the sideline receiving attention in the Irish medical tent and didn’t have his helmet with him for much of the remainder.
McIntosh, typically behind Adams, Tony Jones Jr. and Dexter Williams on the depth chart, finished with a game-high 124 yards and two touchdowns. Adams accounted for 118 yards and one touchdown. The rest of the team, including 32 yards from freshman C.J. Holmes in his Irish debut, combined for 99 yards to give the Irish 341 yards on the ground.
“We’re really proud of that,” said left tackle Mike McGlinchey. “We took a big challenge this offseason in making sure we were going to be able to run the football and put the game on our shoulders up front.
“(Offensive coordinator Chip) Long likes that about us and wants that to be the identity of our football team. The more that we keep grinding at it, the more we keep training, the more we keep studying, the better it’s going to get.”
The running game took the pressure off of Book, who finished 17-of-31 passing for 146 yards and one touchdown with two interceptions. So did the Notre Dame defense.
The Irish finished with three turnovers on defense after Tranquill stripped the ball away from wide receiver Beau Corrales in the fourth quarter. It was the 14th turnover of the season for a defense that forced only 14 the entire 2016 season.
Tranquill, who said the defense would punish opponents following the 20-19 loss to Georgia, still isn’t satisfied.
“They challenged us this week to really come out and have a dominating performance,” Tranquill said. “We took a step towards that. I still don’t think we’ve done exactly what we can in terms of punishing opponents. But we definitely took a step toward that today and had a good performance.”
After the loss to Georgia, Notre Dame has rolled to four consecutive victories with three coming on the road. It was a path that seemed possible, but the commanding nature of the wins has been notable.
“I knew that we were in a different place with our football team in terms of their total preparation in all areas,” Kelly said of the confidence he had in his team following the loss. “You can never predict how a game is going to unfold. Things can happen. I’ve been in this long enough to know.
“I was confident in the football team and its preparation. We really had a great shot to win the game that we played. I wasn’t forecasting anything other than the next week. I felt good about my football team.”