Who needs a bye week? Certainly not Notre Dame after this one/win
CHAPEL HILL, N.C.— A Saturday afternoon/evening in late September along Tobacco Road looked a whole lot like a weekday morning/afternoon along Courtney Lane on campus in early August.
Before the near-miss at No. 2 Ohio State. Before the meltdown loss to Marshall and the scratch-it-out survival at the end against California. Before the starting quarterback crumpled with a season-ending injury and way before almost everything about the Notre Dame football program came into question amid clouds of uncertainty following its first 0-2 start since 2011.
On Saturday at North Carolina, that was how this all is/was supposed to look for Notre Dame.
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For the first time this season, we saw it against a previously-undefeated North Carolina team that was rolling, but left limping and looking a whole lot lost like Notre Dame looked the last three weeks.
Unsteady. Unsure. Underwhelming.
For the first time this season, all the pieces fit for Notre Dame. On both sides of the football. For four quarters. On the road, yeah, that also helped as the Irish climbed back to break even (2-2) with a convincing 45-32 victory in front of what was supposed to be a sellout crowd at Kenan Stadium.
“Extremely happy for our group of guys and our coaching staff,” said Irish head coach Marcus Freeman. “For the entirety of a game, they played really well. We played really well.”
Played well. Coached well. Believed well. Finished well. This was a stat sheet worth savoring. Notre Dame rolled up 35 first downs, 289 rushing yards and 576 yards of total offense. It limited North Carolina to 2.4 yards per rush and scratched out the season’s first turnover. It allowed 367 yards, but a chunk of that arrived long after this one went lopsided. After allowing one big drive to open the game, Notre Dame basically pulled the plug on North Carolina’s offense.
“We,” said linebacker Marist Liufau,” executed well today.”
All about execution, right?
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The Irish played with a swagger rarely seen the first three games. There were plenty of questions coming into this one, but the Irish had most all of the answers.
Nobody on the far sideline would’ve minded had this one — which seemingly took forever to finish — had gone on even longer. It would’ve given Drew Pyne more time to show that he can do this quarterback stuff, and do it rather well. It would’ve given Irish running backs Logan Diggs, Audric Estime and Chris Tyree more chances at more touches and more big plays. It would’ve given tight end Michael Mayer more opportunities to be MICHAEL MAYER. On Saturday, he showed why he’s considered among the best tight ends in the country. How wide open was the playbook for Mayer? Coordinator Tommy Rees even called a jet sweep for the tight end.
Who wants to tackle that runaway locomotive?
No F bombs dropped on the direct phone line to the starting quarterback from the coordinator this week. Everything was roses. The game plan, the execution, the effort.
Everybody did their (freaking) job.
Everything Rees drew up, even some plays that should be reserved for in the dirt out in the backyard, clicked. Open receivers running free and easily down the field. Bootleg rollouts to the right, then throwbacks to the left, where Diggs caught one scoring pass from Pyne (29 yards) where he was almost too wide open. Pyne had no choice but to get him the ball.
“It’s a pretty awesome feeling,” Pyne said of a play that materialized to perfection. “It feels like the ball’s in the air for 20 seconds.”
Pushing all this in the right direction
Among the guys Pyne counts most in his quarterback corner is former Irish signal-caller Ian Book, who knows something about making his first career road start — his first collegiate start — on the same field and against the same team that Pyne made his first true road start. On Saturday, Pyne looked a lot like Book looked in the swampy soupiness of Kenan in 2017 when he stepped in for injured Brandon Wimbush. He found guys. He made plays. He played with a confidence that it all would work out.
It did then for Book. It did for Pyne on Saturday.
Watching Book that day, you thought that maybe Notre Dame had found a quarterback it could win with. Pyne’s not there yet, but at least he took a step in that direction. Afterward, Pyne met the media wearing the standard gray Notre Dame golf shirt and sweat pants, but hadn’t yet wiped the eye black smeared on each of his cheeks. Maybe he didn’t have time, but he didn’t want this night to end after finishing 24-for-34 for 289 yards and three touchdowns.
“Our offense went out there and executed,” Pyne said. “It’s just an all-around great team win.”
Almost everything Notre Dame touched Saturday turned to gold. For the fourth game in as many weeks, this was one that nobody saw coming. But for the first time, in a good way. The best of ways. A winning way. A dominant way.
Too bad that the Irish take a week off from game action before heading to Las Vegas in early October to play Brigham Young. The previous three weeks, it was hard to see exactly what this Notre Dame team could be the rest of this month and beyond. Establishing an identity was rough and unfinished business. Maybe next week. Maybe next.
Saturday, we finally got a glimpse of everything this Notre Dame team might be. It might not be great. It might not be elite. It still has the chance to be pretty good. Might as well take that, because there’s no other option. Get going, get rolling and see where/what 10-2 gets them.
“I’m really happy where this team’s progressing,” Freeman said. “Is this a football team that’s getting better? It is. They’re playing better. They’re practicing better. And that’s the challenge — continue to get better.”
Beating North Carolina and beating down another Atlantic Coast Conference opponent has become all too common for Notre Dame. Almost boringly so. Another game against Carolina, another game against an ACC team, mark it down as another win. Yawn.
Following Saturday’s snoozer, Notre Dame has played North Carolina 23 times. The Irish have won 21, including each of the last three years. Saturday also was consecutive win No. 12 at the home of an ACC opponent, consecutive win No. 25 overall against the conference in the regular season.
This one also was a clear message about any interest that Notre Dame might have in joining the ACC sometime down the road. Nah, the Irish collectively said with their play, we’re good. You keep the ACC. They’ll keep independence and keep beating your ACC afterthoughts.
As Pyne left the North Carolina lacrosse team meeting room — which doubled as the post-game interview area — he asked a question to a Notre Dame spokesperson.
“Is that all right?” he wondered after his six-minute presser concluded.
Like with the game he and his teammates had played, it was fine. Just fine.
Follow South Bend Tribune and NDInsider columnist Tom Noie on Twitter: @tnoieNDI. Contact: (574) 235-6153.