Noie: More of the same from No. 2 — and different — Notre Dame
Paid to provide analysis and opinion, ESPN color commentator Kirk Herbstreit spilled plenty of both during Friday’s college football telecast between No. 2 Notre Dame and No. 25 North Carolina.
One of the final sentences Herbstreit spoke said it best about these Irish, who moved to 9-0 overall, 8-0 and still in sole possession of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference following a 31-17 victory at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.
“Brian Kelly’s got a team that’s wired a little differently,” Herbstreit told viewers as quarterback Ian Book prepared to wind down another road win in the victory formation.
It was the first time this season that ABC’s lead crew of Herbstreit and play-by-play man Chris Fowler called an Irish game. There was a lot for them to like, not necessarily just about the final score, but about how this Notre Dame team went about its business. No fuss, just focus. And a lot of fight.
The Irish are all business, something we're all starting to see. We didn't see it in spring practice or fall camp (thanks, global pandemic). It was hard to see it in September and October when there was a start, a stop and a restart. We're seeing it as November pushes toward December and college football's postseason, long just a fantasy for obvious reasons, starts to become a possible reality.
Another road game, another conference game, another win. Just another day’s work for these Irish before getting back on the charter flight home and enjoying Saturday, which includes the team’s official Thanksgiving dinner.
Even if the turkey's a little dry, the mashed potatoes a bit lumpy and nobody goes anywhere near Kelly’s preferred side dish (squash?!?), everything would taste a little better after doing what this team's done the past five weeks.
“Really great win on the road against an outstanding opponent,” Kelly said. “One of those road wins that really shows the mettle of your football team.”
This Irish team, also ranked second in the first College Football Playoff rankings and barreling toward cementing a spot in the Final Four, didn’t so much as win another conference road contest Saturday as much they just took it. Like, here, Tar Heels, we’ll show you how to go win a game when a game is there to be won.
Everyone expected this one to be a shootout where points would pinball around the stadium scoreboards and tackles and third-down stops would be at a premium. For a while, it looked like the first to 50 might be the winner after the teams combined for four touchdowns — two each — in the first quarter.
As the game settled down, the Irish settled in and just played their way. Nothing really seems to bother them in the pursuit of the end result — another win. Make that, another road win. Another conference win.
Notre Dame had every opportunity/excuse not to play its best Friday. The day itself is enough to knock a team off its game-week rhythm. The contest capped a run where the Irish had played four of five on the road. The only home game was against seemingly unbeatable Clemson. Throw in a bye week, something that’s never been a good idea when the Irish were rolling the way they were, and two injured starters absent from the offensive line to go with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and its protocols and this one had the makings of being too close for comfort.
Oh, and Carolina was ready for this one. Like, this was their time. No it wasn't.
It takes more than hope to beat these Irish. It takes four quarters and consistent effort and execution. It takes traits. Who had 'em? One team sure did.
As Kelly told his team in the locker room at halftime, this one was going to be about fighting for every blade of grass if the Irish were going to snag win No. 9. The Irish took their share of the sod in the second half.
Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees stayed aggressive at Kelly' urging. Defensive coordinator Clark Lea again showed why he's a certain head coach somewhere by designing a defense absent one of its best players (safety Kyle Hamilton was disqualified in the first half for targeting) and then shutting out a team in the fourth quarter that doesn't get shut out in the fourth quarter.
Irish linebacker Drew White was awarded the game ball, but Kelly could’ve handed out a barrel full of them. You get a game ball, and you get a game ball and you and you and you.
White would get one, as would Marist Liufau and the defensive line and Book and wide receiver Javon McKinley and maybe even freshman tight end Michael Mayer. With this team, this season, it's not about one guy.
“Everybody’s got a piece of this,” Kelly said. “It was a really good win for us.”
“Play-makers,” Kelly said, “make plays.”
A bunch of Irish made a bunch of them.
Tar Heels coach Mack Brown mentioned during his halftime interview about his guys needing to believe that they could beat Notre Dame. How they needed to enjoy being in the moment. When the bright lights got brighter in the second half, the Tar Heels played like they didn't believe. Like they didn't enjoy it.
Notre Dame? Time and place and space don’t seem to matter to these Irish. They're built for second halves like Friday. North Carolina had the look of a team that might do something Friday. Notre Dame played with the poise that it could and would make one more play when one more play needed to be made.
The other guys? Just like against Georgia Tech and Boston College and even Clemson, they looked like they were a play and player or two short.
Friday was the first of two late regular-season trips to North Carolina. Notre Dame returns in a few weeks to close out the regular season against Wake Forest, a game that was pushed back from its original September slate because of coronavirus. A third trip to Carolina is all but assured — Dec. 19 a couple hours away from Chapel Hill in Charlotte, where a rematch with a certain team in orange with a coach named Dabo likely awaits.
So Herbie nailed it. These Irish are wired differently. Not a little. Maybe a lot. They’re wired to win. Maybe the ACC, and maybe even beyond. How do they get there from here? Same way they did Friday while sitting in the locker room on the road in a tie game.
The second half was coming. So were the Irish.
“Just keep doing,” Book said of the intermission mindset, “what we’re doing.”