What we learned: Offensive advancement a breath of fresh air for Notre Dame vs. Tar Heels
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — For an offense that has struggled to find its breath throughout head coach Marcus Freeman’s inaugural season, Notre Dame’s deep inhale inside Kenan Memorial Stadium Saturday served as a huge boost to the team’s vital signs.
Looking at the chart, the 45-32 win over the Tar Heels in the crisp North Carolina autumn air evens the Irish record at 2-2, gives Freeman his first win on the road and showed just how much a steady diet of run plays can nurse an offense back to health.
And it gives Notre Dame faithful a chance to exhale going into the bye week before the Oct. 8 Shamrock Series game against BYU in Las Vegas.
“It was a challenge to our offense to be able to run the ball, and it was a challenge to our defense to stop the run,” Freeman said after both challenges were met. “... “For an entirety of the game, we played really well. The beauty of it is there’s always room to get better."
How the points were scored:Notre Dame football comes alive in 45-32 win at North Carolina
Notre Dame exploded for 24 second-quarter points to take control. Following an opening three-and-out punt followed by a missed field goal attempt, the Irish scored on six straight drives (five touchdowns and a field goal) and seven of eight.
When the Irish didn’t score, they almost did, narrowly turning the ball over on downs at the UNC 15 yard-line and fumbling into the end zone for a Tar Heel touchback.
“Our offense went out there and executed and we scored on a lot of drives,” Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne said. “It all starts with our offensive linemen. Our o-line has played and worked so hard. … it’s just an all-around great team win.”
Here are four things we learned from Notre Dame’s breath of fresh air Saturday on Tobacco Road:
Drew Pyne looks like a college quarterback
We’re not going to do anything crazy, like proclaim this was Pyne’s coming out party as Notre Dame’s next star quarterback. It wasn’t. But it was a significant step forward for the junior from Connecticut who just last week was caught on the NBC broadcast getting lit up on the sideline phone by his offensive coordinator Tommy Rees.
It didn’t take a lip-reading expert Saturday to conclude that Rees' message got through to Pyne. He was poised when he needed to be poised, he protected the football and he leaned on the playmakers around him, particularly his All-American tight end Michael Mayer, who hauled in nine catches for 88 yards and touchdown.
The 6-foot-5, 265-pound Mayer would pluck the ball out of the Carolina Blue sky and then punish Tar Heel defenders for 44 yards after his catches. It seemed a safe retreat to a comfortable production point that was perfect in its simplicity.
"Today he continued to make good decisions and he executed,” Freeman said of his quarterback, now 2-0 as a starter since taking over for the injured Tyler Buchner. “He put the ball where it needed to be and some guys made some plays.”
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While Mayer provided a significant spark for Pyne, it doesn’t mask the fact that Notre Dame receivers need to become more on an influence in the offensive game plan. Lorenzo Styles did catch five of six targets for 69 yards and a touchdown, but unit production fell considerably from there as Jayden Thomas, Braden Lenzy and Matt Salerno combined to catch five passes for 43 yards.
Running backs Chris Tyree and Logan Diggs, meanwhile, combined for seven catches, 89 yards and a touchdown.
Still, Pyne’s stat line of 24-34-0 for 289 yards and three touchdowns is the confidence builder he needed, no matter how porous the Tar Heels secondary might be.
"Coach Rees called an unbelievable game,” Pyne said “He puts me in a position to succeed and do my job and execute I can’t tell you how many times I ran over to the phone and said, 'Coach Rees, that was all you.’"
Bottom line: Job well done, Mr. Pyne.
Third down’s a charm
If it’s possible to have a first quarter turning point in a 77-point game, it came on Notre Dame’s third offensive series.
North Carolina took its opening drive of the game 76 yards on 12 plays to claim a 7-0 lead on J.J. Downs 4-yard touchdown catch from Drake Maye. Notre Dame answered with a three-and-out and then squandered great field position on its second possession by missing a 43-yard field goal attempt.
Still trailing 7-0 with the ball, the Irish faced a third-and-7 from its own 20-yard line. Pyne dropped back to pass, but was flushed out of the pocket by the Tar Heel rush. He darted around defenders, back through the middle of the field and to the sideline for a 12-yard gain and a first down.
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It was the last play of the first quarter, but from that point on, there was an extra bounce in Pyne’s step. He looked like a different player … a confident and capable quarterback.
On the next play he flipped the field with a 34-yard pass to Diggs down the sideline. Then he fed Tyree three times before hitting a wide-open Mayer over the middle for a 10-yard touchdown and 7-7 tie.
That scramble set the tone, especially on third downs when a suddenly empowered Irish squad would go on to covert eight of 14 such situations (57%). And that stat really was the difference. In its losses to Ohio State and Marshall and its pedestrian win over Cal, Notre Dame succeeded on just 10 of 38 third-down conversions (26%).
The do run-run, the do run-run
Since getting the job as Notre Dame’s head coach, Freeman has preached the need to run the ball. He’s old school, he wants to pound the rock.
Saturday was the first consistent evidence of that philosophy in his first five games. Not only did the Irish run the ball well against the Tar Heels, they did it by committee. Audric Estime was the lead horse with 135 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries. He would have had a third touchdown late in the fourth quarter, but fumbled into the end zone for a North Carolina touchback.
Tyree added 83 yards and a touchdown on 15 carries and Diggs 50 yards on 10 carries. All three had runs in excess of 15 yards. It was the first time Notre Dame had multiple running backs with over 80 yards each since a win over Boston College in 2017.
“When you rush the ball as well as they did today,” UNC head coach Mack Brown said, “everything works.”
With the offensive line finding its rhythm and the running backs hitting the holes, Pyne could use play action and create more time in the pocket.
Rees’ game plan and player execution provided balance that kept Carolina’s defense on its heels. Of Notre Dame’s 85 plays, 34 were passes and 35 were runs. Of Notre Dame’s 576 total yards, 289 were passing and 287 were rushing.
Those numbers are worth calling home about.
"When things go bad, it’s bad play calling, when things go well, it’s great play calling,” Freeman said. “That’s the reality of things. I believe in the game Tommy Rees has called from Ohio State to Marshall to Cal to now. We were able to execute better.”
Notre Dame defense gets it done … but ...
The Tar Heels entered the game ranked sixth in the country in scoring average at 51.3 points per game. Quarterback Drake Maye, off to a great start as Sam Howell’s successor, knew he would take some chances against the Notre Dame secondary.
Maye would get his yards (301 with five touchdowns) — thanks in large part to 80- and 64-yard scoring strikes to Antoine Green — but for the most part the Irish DBs held their own against the UNC receivers while Notre Dame’s interior players limited run options to the tune of 66 net yards.
“To hold that offense to 66 rushing yards was a great accomplishment,” Freeman said. “... Always the challenge defensively is going to be to limit the big plays, the explosive plays, the long throws. We have to do a better job at that."
Linebacker Jack Kiser led the Irish with a career high nine tackles, seven of them coming in the first quarter. And following UNC’s touchdown on the opening drive of the game, Notre Dame’s defense was able to stem the tide by forcing punts on the next three Tar Heel possessions in just 11 plays. That bought enough time for the Irish to find their sea legs offensively.
Notre Dame also created its first turnover of the season when linebacker JD Bertrand hurried Maye early in the third quarter, causing him to fumble. Defensive end Justin Ademilola was there to gobble it up. It was Bertrand’s first play of the game after sitting out the first half because of a targeting foul last week against Cal.
The Irish will again be without Bertrand’s services for the first half of their Oct. 8 Shamrock Classic game against BYU at Las Vegas. Bertrand drew another targeting disqualification early in the fourth when he leveled tight end Bryson Nesbit over the middle.
“As I told JD on the field, it’s our job to learn from that situation,” Freeman said. “It’s an entire game he’s missed now. He missed the first half of this game, he’s going to miss the first half of the next game. We have to learn from it.”
The Irish learned plenty about themselves Saturday, and most of it pointed to brighter days ahead.