Hansen: Smothering Tar Heels shows defense still matters and so do Notre Dame's ambitions

Eric Hansen
South Bend Tribune

Drew White was so clinical, so matter-of-fact as he walked the media through what may very turn out to be a touchstone moment in modern Notre Dame football history, it almost felt like business as usual.

And maybe that indeed is where the No. 2 Irish are headed after smirking at adversity Friday in Chapel Hill, N.C., on their way to a 31-17 smothering of CFP No. 19 North Carolina that reeked of big-picture significance.

Namely, that the Irish not only handled the success of toppling No. 1 Clemson at the beginning of the month, they found a way to build on it.

And also that defense still matters in college football.

“Offensively, we just absolutely got hit in the mouth,” said North Carolina head coach Mack Brown, whose nation’s No. 4 offense followed up its school-record 742 total yards against Wake Forest six days earlier with 298 against the Irish on Black Friday.

That broke a string of six straight games of 500 yards or more for the Carolina offense and 16 straight games of at least 400 yards in total offense.

White, Notre Dame’s senior middle linebacker, received the game ball sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton was on his way toward securing (six tackles) when a targeting penalty sidelined ND’s seemingly most irreplaceable player — at least on defense — midway through the second quarter.

What ensued was a masterful game plan and execution to match for the Irish (9-0, 8-0 ACC) on both sides of the ball and another referendum that a retro-built team — ball control, power and defense — can not only survive in a college football world of escalating offensive pyrotechnics, it can thrive in it.

“The mood on the sideline was to just analyze and get the coaching points,” White said of the post-Hamilton ejection surge. “Just have juice and good mood on the sideline, communication, making sure we’re getting the right adjustments.

“You can’t just come to the sideline and be mad. That’s not going to help anybody. That’s not going to help yourself. It’s not going to help the team.”

North Carolina (6-3, 6-3 ACC) would have faced a fourth-and-10 in its own territory without the targeting penalty. Instead the Tar Heels got a first down out of it at their own 44.

It had the same look and feel as All-America cornerback Julian Love leaving a tight game in the College Football Playoff semifinal loss to Clemson two season ago, in which the Irish defense simply crumbled in a 30-3 thumping.

But with a way different ending this time.

North Carolina, which had scored on its first two possessions, and rather easily at that, stalled at the Irish 25 and settled for a 42-yard field goal and a 17-14 lead. Not only wouldn’t the Tar Heels score again, they’d accumulate just 78 yards the rest of the game.

For the game, Notre Dame outrushed a team with two running backs — Michael Carter and Javonte Williams — averaging more than 100 yards a game coming in, 199-87, and sacked Carolina QB Sam Howell six times.

Beyond yielding a third-down conversion on the Tar Heels’ first drive and the one by penalty on Hamilton’s targeting foul, the Irish snuffed out all nine of the other third-down attempts and one on fourth down as well.

“We really, as a defensive unit, see momentum as a myth,” White said. “I’m sure people will argue that point. After each drive, we go back to the sideline and we make corrections, how ever many that will be.

“Our focus is on to the next drive. After we make the correction, I’m not thinking about the play that I missed in the first quarter. That’s out of my memory and I’m moving on to the next series.

“It’s almost like the opposite of momentum. It’s focusing in on the next drive, because that’s all that really matters.”

Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly, who counts Brown as one of his closest coaching friends and X’s-and-O’s sounding boards when they’re not playing each other — and Friday was the first time ever they did — said the Irish needed to acclimate to the speed of North Carolina’s offense after a bye week that included final exams.

But he acknowledged in-game adjustments by defensive coordinator Clark Lea also helped the Irish defense get beyond looking like they were playing with a tryptophan hangover.

Blitzes by White and fellow linebacker Marist Liufau, each of whom finished with five tackles, took Howell, the nation’s No. 9 passer out of his rhythm. He finished 17-of-27 for a season-low 211 yards and a TD.

Howell’s 140.8 pass-efficiency rating for the game was more than 40 points below his season mark coming into the game.

Another reason for that was Houston Griffith, who came in for Hamilton, was quietly effective. The same can be said for right guard Josh Lugg and center Zeke Correll, each of whom was tested early and often by North Carolina but settled in nicely for injured offensive line starters Tommy Kraemer and Jarrett Patterson.

“I think the most important thing tonight is the belief that we have in the guys who step in,” Kelly said. “I mean, we believe in Zeke. Here’s a kid who’s just been waiting for his opportunity. Highly recruited player, and we’ve got great trust in him.

“Same thing with Josh Lugg. Same thing with Houston Griffith, when he stepped in for Kyle Hamilton. We believe in these guys. And we love these guys and trust them. They went out and played at a high level.”

Quarterback Ian Book, meanwhile, was hardly an afterthought but rather the perfect complement to Notre Dame’s defensive surge.

The last time Book played at Kenan Memorial Stadium it was his first college start. Filling in for an injured Brandon Wimbush back in 2017, he was an effective game manager in a 33-10 Irish win in which Carolina’s starting QB was Chazz Surratt, now a star linebacker for the Tar Heels.

Friday, Book was so much more.

He’s become a transformative player, shattering perceptions and setting new expectations for what his ceiling might look like now that he’s thoroughly shattered the glass one that was fitted for him.

The context of his numbers means so much more than the numbers themselves — not that 23-of-33 passing for 279 yards and a TD and 48 yards rushing on eight carries qualify as pedestrian. Nor the fact he's now gone 237 pass attempts without an interception, breaking Brady Quinn's school record of 226 (set in 2006).

What doesn’t jump off the stat sheet does jump off the tape. The clutch decisions. The Patrick Mahomes-type flips. The escapability to turn potential setbacks into wow plays.

“Ian Book was as good tonight as anybody I've ever seen,” said Brown, the longest-tenured active FBS coach at 32 years. “We couldn't tackle him. We harassed him. We had people around him. There could have been six sacks. We could not get him on the ground.

“Then he made some unbelievable plays on third down. I don't know if he's in the Heisman race or not, but he should be.”

Sophomore Kryen Williams went over 900 yards rushing for the season with 124 Friday against the Tar Heels on 23 carries, his 11th and 12th rushing TDs of the season and a touchdown reception. His 47-yard burst late in the fourth quarter drew some Twitter love from notably NBA megastar LeBron James.

It also was emblematic of ND’s ability to play keepaway with its offense, limiting North Carolina to 57 plays (13 below the national average) and 24:56 of possession time.

Grad senior Javon McKinley, who last winter wasn’t even sure he’d be on the Irish roster this year, continued to surge as ND’s leading receiver, with six catches Friday for a career-high 135 yards.

“Everybody’s got a piece of this,” Kelly said. “Everybody is excited about where we are.”

And where the Irish are days after the first set of College Football Playoff rankings slotted them in their highest-ever position is riding the nation’s longest active win streak to 15 games and winning their 18th straight regular-season game against ACC opponents.

And a win next Saturday over the ACC’s 15th-place team Syracuse (1-8, 1-7 ACC) punches their ticket for the ACC Championship Game Dec. 19 in Charlotte, N.C.

What stirs Kelly, though, more than anything is that he sees in his locker room a team that not only wants more, it might finally be the one that can go get it.

North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell (7) is sacked by Notre Dame's Marist Liufau (35) and Drew White (40)during ND's 31-17 victory Friday at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.