Notebook: Notre Dame DE Julian Okwara makes memorable return to North Carolina

Tyler James and Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Julian Okwara reached out his right hand and made a play even Mike Brey and Roy Williams could appreciate.

On a campus known more for basketball than football, the Irish sophomore looked more like a basketball player than a defensive end intercepting a pass Saturday against North Carolina.

Okwara swatted away a Chazz Surratt pass back at the UNC quarterback, boxed him out and snatched it out of the air like a rebound. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Okwara did it all in front of “at least 15” family members in his home state.

He described it all so matter-of-factly.

“It’s just something we practice every day in practice,” Okwara said. “A quarterback rolling out, get your bare hand up and then being able to catch the ball at the highest point. That’s just something that came into play. It worked out that way.”

A lot worked out for Okwara and the Irish defensive line in Saturday’s 33-10 win over the Tar Heels (1-5). Fellow sophomore defensive end Khalid Kareem picked up a Surratt fumble, senior defensive end Jay Hayes recorded a safety by taking down running back Jordon Brown in the end zone, and the defensive line was credited with nine of the team’s 11 quarterback hurries.

Okwara, a product of Charlotte (N.C.) Ardrey Kell, led the 21st-ranked Irish (5-1) with three QB hurries. He hadn’t had a chance to digest all the messages sent to him on his phone before the postgame interview, but he noticed plenty were waiting for him.

“It felt awesome. A lot of my friends go to this school,” Okwara said. “It’s great. My phone’s blowing up. People texting me ‘Congrats’ and ‘Great play,’ and all that stuff. It feels really great.”

After Okwara answered questions from reporters, he quickly rushed out of the media room. He had family to see.

“I’m actually waiting to see them right now,” Okwara said.

Reversal of fortune

A year ago, Notre Dame struggled a whole lot to do anything well away from home. The Irish finished 0-3 in true road games.

On Saturday, Notre Dame moved to 3-0 away from home. Each one — Boston College, Michigan State, North Carolina — has been a pretty solid four-quarter effort.

“Winning’s hard on the road,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “We needed some resolve and some mental toughness, and we showed that today.”

The Irish have shown it really all year. Out in New England, up in Michigan, and again along Tobacco Road, fans of the home team in each game found themselves heading for the exits in the second half. On Saturday, it was early in the second half.

There was really little for them to cheer. Notre Dame made sure of it. Again.

“We were able to be disruptive,” Kelly said. “To go on the road and win by 20-plus points for the third time this year, really pleased with our guys in terms of their mental preparation and how they get on the road and attack this.

“It’s hard to do.”

Notre Dame has done it.

Streak snapped

Notre Dame had been really good — downright perfect — in the red zone the season’s first five games. That looked to continue Saturday when the Irish scored twice — a touchdown and field goal — inside the Tar Heel 20.

That was all they’d get.

Notre Dame’s streak of 24-straight scores in the red zone this season ended in the second half with an Ian Book interception. The Irish also fell a yard short of scoring while in the red zone at the end of the game when the offense took a knee instead of punching in a late six.

Rolling the dice

A sophomore quarterback making his first start aside, Kelly had no qualms about going for it on fourth down. He did it on his team’s third series from the Tar Heel 48 and didn’t make it. No matter.

The Irish did it three more times, and converted all the three times.

“The sense that I got was that we were going to be stingy defensively today and I am confident in our offense,” Kelly said. “Both of those factors together weighed on my decision on fourth down.” 

Walking wounded

A warm, muggy afternoon took a toll on Notre Dame, which had practiced much of the week back in Indiana with temperatures in the 80s.

In addition to starting running back Josh Adams leaving with dehydration, wide receiver Equanimeous St. Brown left with cramps.

“We had some problems with cramping,” Kelly said.

Right guard Alex Bars tweaked an ankle, which forced Hunter Bivin into the rotation and eventually led to Tommy Kraemer sliding inside to right guard with Robert Hainsey at right tackle. Linebacker Nyles Morgan went down in the second half with a stinger, but Kelly said the injury wasn’t serious. Defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa suffered a chest contusion.

Kelly believes anyone who went down Saturday should be good to go in two weeks against USC.

Squibs

• Notre Dame running backs coach Autry Denson spent Friday night watching Irish running back commit Jahmir Smith in action at Sanford (N.C.) Lee County High School. Smith scored three touchdowns in the 50-0 victory for Lee County over Harnett Central. Smith rushed 11 times for 88 yards and caught two passes for 42 yards.

Smith returned the favor by making the short trip to Chapel Hill on Saturday to watch the Irish play.

• Notre Dame entered Saturday’s game ranked seventh in the nation in rushing yards per game at 301.4 and third in yards per carry (7.14). The Irish then rolled up 341 rushing yards with an average of 6.0 per carry.

• Running back C.J. Holmes, essentially the fifth-string running back, carried eight times for 32 yards in his first collegiate action of the season.

• Tyler Newsome punted six times for an average of 50 yards. His longest was a 57-yard rocket.

• Senior rover Drue Tranquill led the Irish with seven tackles. He also forced a fumble, which he recovered.

Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara (42) tackles North Carolina QB Chazz Surratt (12) during the Notre Dame-North Carolina NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, NC. Tribune Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN