Notre Dame's defense shuts down North Carolina in second half of 31-17 victory

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

Notre Dame’s offense put together the game-clinching drive its defense deserved.

With the No. 2 Irish holding onto a one-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, the offense took four minutes and 32 seconds to chew up 89 yards, extending the lead to two touchdowns with 1:20 remaining and to secure a 31-17 win Friday at No. 19 North Carolina.

Running back Kyren Williams did most of the work on the game's penultimate drive with five carries for 67 yards, including a one-yard touchdown run. That score allowed Notre Dame’s defense to finish the game with a little less pressure to continue shutting down North Carolina’s high-powered offense.

“Our defense did an unbelievable job in the second half and gave us a lot of opportunities,” said Notre Dame quarterback Ian Book. “We were able to capitalize on it."

The outlook for Notre Dame (9-0, 8-0 ACC) looked bleak when star safety Kyle Hamilton was ejected for targeting late in the second quarter. The helmet-to-helmet hit Hamilton delivered as he tackled UNC wide receiver Josh Downs for a 10-yard gain on third-and-20 gave the Tar Heels a first down and eliminated Hamilton from the contest.

North Carolina took advantage of the penalty and ended the drive with a 42-yard field goal by Grayson Atkins to take a 17-14 lead with 1:10 remaining in the first half. The Tar Heels (6-3, 6-3) had already scored two touchdowns with Hamilton in the game and totaled 220 yards of offense in the first half.

But the Irish defense didn’t fold with Hamilton sidelined. The unit turned up the pressure on quarterback Sam Howell and finished the game with six sacks. North Carolina failed to convert its final seven third-down attempts and managed to gain only 78 yards in the second half. The last successful conversion for the Tar Heels came on the targeting penalty against Hamilton.

“We needed to acclimate a little bit and once we did, we really liked our game plan,” ND head coach Brian Kelly said. “We thought that we had some things that they hadn’t seen before. We were able to take away some of their glance reads off the (run-pass option), which made it difficult for them in certain situations.”

Juniors Houston Griffith and DJ Brown replaced Hamilton at safety and didn’t become liabilities playing alongside sixth-year senior and captain Shaun Crawford. Griffith made one tackle. Brown didn’t register a stat. But they didn’t make any big mistakes, either.

“This was as well as our group played in the back end,” Kelly said. “Even when Kyle went down, Houston and DJ and Shaun played extremely well and assignment-correct. Great communication.”

Notre Dame grabbed its first lead of the game with a 13-play, 97-yard drive on its first possession of the second half. North Carolina had itself to blame for prolonging the drive. Linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel jumped offside on fourth-and-1 from the Notre Dame 24-yard line when the Irish were clearly only trying to draw that penalty rather than attempting a fourth-down conversion.

ND quarterback Ian Book took advantage of the extra plays with a 21-yard pass to wide receiver Ben Skowronek, and a 15-yard pass to tight end Michael Mayer on third-and-10. North Carolina hurt itself again with a pass-interference penalty on freshman cornerback Tony Grimes in coverage of wide receiver Joe Wilkins Jr.

Skowronek gave Notre Dame the lead with a 13-yard touchdown run on a jet sweep to the right side with 7:05 left in the third quarter.

Playing behind an offensive line with two new starters at center (sophomore Zeke Correll in for Jarrett Patterson) and right guard (senior Josh Lugg in for Tommy Kraemer), Book was pressured throughout the game, forced to scramble and sacked twice. He still finished 23-of-33 passing for 279 yards and one touchdown. Book also rushed for 48 yards.

“Ian Book was as good (Friday) as anybody I've ever seen,” said UNC head coach Mack Brown. “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 (Trophy) race or not, but he should be. His record's 29-3. He's fast. He's quick. He's accurate. He's smart. He's not going to do things to get his team beat. I was so impressed with him (Friday).”

Book finished his eighth straight game without throwing an interception. He’s attempted 237 passes since his interception in the season opener against Duke. That streak broke a Notre Dame program record set by Brady Quinn in 2006 with 226.

Williams, who rushed 23 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns, caught Book’s lone touchdown pass in the second quarter and totaled four receptions for 20 yards. Wide receiver Javon McKinley led the Irish with six catches for 135 yards.

North Carolina entered the game with 103 points scored in the fourth quarter of games this season, but couldn’t manage a single point in the entire second half.

Defensive end Adetokunbo Ogundeji led the Irish pressure with a pair of sacks. Rover Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah covered a lot of ground for his team-high nine tackles. Fellow linebackers Drew White and Marist Liufau each added five tackles. Hamilton had six before being ejected.

Howell completed 17 of his 27 passes for 211 yards and one touchdown. Running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, who both entered the game averaging more than 100 rushing yards per game, were limited to 57 and 28 yards, respectively.

“Looked like they whipped us up front,” Mack Brown said. “They got too much pressure on Sam. Didn't have enough time to get the ball to the guys.

“We knew that was an issue unless we could run the ball well enough in this game. We knew that we couldn't protect well enough to get the ball downfield and we had to throw the ball to win the game. We knew that. Give Notre Dame credit for getting that done."

The game seemed headed for a high-scoring affair with how both offenses were humming in the first quarter. North Carolina and Notre Dame each scored a pair of touchdowns after the Irish punted on its first drive.

North Carolina scored first with a seven-play, 50-yard drive. Wide receiver Emery Simmons ended the drive with a leaping catch over ND cornerback TaRiq Bracy for a six-yard touchdown from Howell.

Notre Dame responded with a nine-play, 75-yard drive with some momentum in the running game. Freshman running back Chris Tyree ripped off a 16-yard run. Then Book took off for 18 yards. Williams powered his way through the right side for a two-yard touchdown run.

North Carolina needed another seven plays to return to the end zone on a 75-yard drive. A 51-yard pass from Howell to wide receiver Dyami Brown set up a one-yard touchdown run for Howell. The Tar Heels offense looked unstoppable, but linebacker Drew White wasn’t worried about the momentum being created.

“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, however 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.”

Book put on a show to lead Notre Dame’s second touchdown drive. He started with a 43-yard pass to McKinley. Then Book ran for 33 yards on a designed run. He finished the drive with a bit of freelancing following a bad snap from Correll. Book picked the ball off the ground, retreated and ran away from the pass rush to find an alert Williams for a four-yard touchdown pass.

Williams started the play blocking in pass protection but made himself available to Book after he realized Book was scrambling.

“I didn't think he was going to get out, but he did an unbelievable job and he did get out and I just kind of flipped my hips and ran that way,” Book said. “I know our guys are going to keep fighting no matter what. I scramble and try to make as many plays as I can. I trust these guys to be in the right spot. That was another example of that.”

The game was tied at 14 with 1:05 still left in the first quarter, but the scoring settled down in the second quarter. Both teams punted twice each before North Carolina took a 17-14 lead with 1:10 left in the half. The Irish managed to tie the game as time expired in the first half with a 32-yard field goal by Jonathan Doerer.

“We know that they have a really good offense and that they were going to put points up,” Book said. “It felt like it was going to be a shootout in the beginning. We came in at halftime and ‘just believe in what we were doing and keep doing what we were doing and focus one play at a time’ was the message."

Doerer later missed a 32-yard attempt wide right late in the third quarter, which could have given Notre Dame’s defense the two-score lead it deserved. Fortunately, it didn’t come back to haunt the Irish.

That’s because Notre Dame’s defense was playing too well for the mistake to matter.

North Carolina's Dazz Newsome (5) is forced out of bounds by Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah (6) after a pass reception from quarterback Sam Howell for a gain five-yard in the fourth quarter on Friday, November 27, 2020 at Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.