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A Tale of Two Sides (of the Ball) – Notre Dame vs. North Carolina Preview

In his post-game press conference, Marcus Freeman said that he “had a conversation with God” during the last minute and change of the Cal game.  Three potential turnovers that were taken away from the Irish and a hail mary heave that almost tied the game for the Golden Bears; from the stands, I was doing the same thing as Coach Freeman.  Notre Dame was able to come out of last Saturday’s game against Cal with a 24-17 victory to improve to 1-2 on the year, marking Freeman’s first win as the Irish head coach and Drew Pyne’s first win as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback. 

Going into half time, the Irish trailed 10-7, and I must say, that was one of the worst first halves of football that I have watched on every side of the ball.  The offense wasn’t clicking, the defense looked lost, and the officiating…well that was questionable (at best) all afternoon.  In his first start Drew Pyne came out looking anxious and nervous, struggling to get in a rhythm and complete even his short throws.  As fans, we are always extremely critical of the quarterback’s performance, and Pyne was a perfect example of how the pressure of the moment can truly affect performance.  After getting chewed out by Tommy Rees, on a video clip that has gone viral, Pyne’s bounce back in the second half was not only impressive, but necessary.  I’m not saying that Pyne or the offense played lights out, there is still a lot that needs to be cleaned up, but enough plays and drives were able to be strung together to come out with the W.  After having a lack of a ground game against Ohio State and Marshall, Notre Dame running backs Audric Estime and Chris Tyree got more touches against Cal than they did in the first two games combined.  It’s crazy how productive they can be when they have an offensive line that can actually hold a block in front of them!

Throughout the second half, Pyne was able to settle in and the offense looked the most competent that it has looked all season so far.  With some better execution early on, this game would not have been nearly as close, but adjustments and improvements were made at the half and Rees was able to call plays to accentuate Pyne’s strengths at this point in the season.  Sure, the offensive play calling wasn’t flashy, but I was thoroughly impressed with the game that Rees called; he found the weaknesses in the Cal defense, and when something was working, he kept setting the Irish up in situations to take advantage of those play calls.  The troublesome aspect that kept rearing its ugly head was the lack of discipline, especially from veteran players.  Notre Dame had four false start penalties that came on 3rd downs alone – that is just utterly unacceptable, especially in a home environment.  It would be one thing if it was the younger, less experienced players that were making these mistakes but unfortunately, it’s not.  This is the second home game in a row that 5th year senior Jarrett Patterson, among others, has jumped for a false start, but this lack of discipline is nothing short of frustrating. 

On the defensive side of the ball, the line showed up ready to play.  Notre Dame tallied up six sacks in total and held Cal to 112 rushing yards.  If the quarterback scrambles are taken away, Cal had almost no success on the ground.  Speaking of those quarterback scrambles though, although the Irish defensive line had probably their best performance of the year, there were still way too many plays in which the Irish defense lost containment of Jack Plummer.  While Jacob Lacey, Isaiah Foskey, and the Notre Dame defensive line came to life, the Irish linebackers play remains extremely rough.  In my opinion, the linebackers look lost – they are not getting any movement towards the line of scrimmage, they’re very bad at run stops and their tackling looks like what I expect to see at a local Pop Warner game, not Division 1 college football.  Marist Liufau was someone that I had extremely high hopes for in the off-season, but him and the rest of the linebacking corps needs to show me something of note ASAP, because with the limitations that Notre Dame’s offense has, it will be this defensive unit that will likely be the ones keeping the Irish in games as the season progresses.

With the Irish finally getting their first win of the season under their belt, they hit the road to take on ACC opponent, North Carolina, this Saturday.  Of note, Irish linebacker JD Bertrand will not be available to play the first half against the Tar Heels due to the targeting penalty called against him during the waning minutes of the Cal game.  Although Bertrand is a veteran player, the linebacking play has been sub-par and this will provide a chance for younger players to get on the field and potentially provide a spark in that room moving forward. 

Contrary to California, this North Carolina team is an offense first program.  Through three games this year, the Tar Heels are averaging a touch over 51 points per game – granted this was against Florida A&M, Appalachian State, and Georgia State – but these are still very impressive scoring numbers.  Undefeated North Carolina is led by redshirt freshman quarterback Drake Maye, a one time Alabama commit who sat behind Sam Howell last season.  Maye is a much more athletic quarterback than Cal’s Plummer, and is tied for first among Division 1 quarterbacks for touchdowns this season.  Maye is completing just over 74% of his passes this year and has only thrown one interception on his 97 passing attempts. One of UNC’s best wide receivers, Josh Downs, has been cleared to play after suffering a knee injury and will be back against the Irish.  In the backfield, North Carolina’s leading rusher is Omarion Hampton, a freshman running back who is averaging 76 yards per game and is already responsible for five touchdowns.  Behind Hampton, Caleb Hood and George Pettaway have split reps in the Tar Heel backfield.  In the pass game, North Carolina has three receivers and three tight ends that have already eclipsed 100 yards through the air and five receivers that have scored a touchdown; that’s five more than the Irish wide receivers.  Needless to say, scoring points has not been an issue for the 2022 Tar Heels.

On the other side of the ball, the North Carolina defense is almost the polar opposite of the offense.  Giving up nearly 38 points per game, the Tar Heels are allowing 2.83 points per drive this season – that ranks 64th out of the 65 Power 5 teams.  Carolina is responsible for two interceptions through the first three games and will obviously be looking to add to that total with Drew Pyne making his first career road start for the Irish. The dichotomy between the Tar Heel’s high powered offense and their defense that has struggled to literally stop anyone, reminds me of the old-school Big 12 teams. As the Notre Dame offense will look to get on track and build some confidence going up against this defense, I hope this isn’t Carolina’s game to have a breakout defensive performance. From a non-analytical standpoint, UNC does have one of my favorite names on their defense – cornerback, Storm Duck.

What makes me nervous for Saturday’s matchup is the high-powered Tar Heel offense putting Notre Dame into a shootout situation.  Although I praised the gameplan and play calling by Tommy Rees this past week, I haven’t seen anything from the Irish offense that has shown they could score in bunches if needed.  Yes, Notre Dame’s defense will be the best unit that the Tar Heels have seen up to this point, but the Irish linebackers will certainly need to step up and contain Maye much better than they did Plummer if the Irish want to avoid needing 50+ points to win the game.  I expect the Notre Dame game plan to resemble what was in place against Ohio State – controlling the clock through the run game and limiting the Tar Heels possessions.  We saw improvements on both sides of the ball and will need the “second half against Cal” Drew Pyne to be present for the full game in order for the Irish to have a shot at getting their second win of this season.  The line for this game has flipped every time that I have checked it and Notre Dame is currently sitting as two-point underdogs.  With the inconsistency in play from the Irish and the lack of legitimate competition that the Tar Heels have played, this game remains a mystery to me.  I think that North Carolina will have some success on offense, especially with quarterback runs, but Notre Dame’s defensive line and secondary have impressed me recently.  A win would be a huge injection of confidence for the Irish and will come down to the adjustments that the coaching staff is able to implement.  If Notre Dame comes out with the energy they had to start the Ohio State game and the execution, efficiency, and aggression they showed in the second half against Cal, the Irish can pull out a W.  It may not be the prettiest game, but the Irish will take care of business 28-21 and improve to .500.  Go Irish.  Beat Tar Heels. 

A Look at Notre Dame’s Opponents:

Ohio State: 3-0 overall, currently ranked #3, beat Toledo 77-21

Marshall: 2-1 overall, lost to Bowling Green (in OT) 34-31

California: 2-1 overall, lost to Notre Dame 24-17

North Carolina: 3-0 overall, coming off bye week

BYU: 2-1 overall, currently ranked #19, lost to Oregon 41-20

Stanford: 1-1 overall, coming off bye week

UNLV: 2-1 overall, beat North Texas 58-27

Syracuse: 3-0 overall, beat Purdue 32-29

Clemson: 3-0 overall, currently ranked #5, beat Louisiana Tech 48-20

Navy: 0-2 overall, coming off bye week 

Boston College: 1-2 overall, beat Maine 38-17

USC: 3-0 overall, currently ranked #7, beat Fresno State 45-17