By R.L. Bynum
In North Carolina’s second chance at a historic signature win in two seasons, the Tar Heels showed that the program can play with anybody in the country.
Just like against No. 1 Clemson a year ago when UNC was a 2-point conversion away from victory, the Tar Heels couldn’t get it done as No. 2 Notre Dame neutralizing their offense better than anybody all season.
With No. 25 UNC (6–3, 6–3 ACC) forced to punt a season-high seven times, the Irish escaped from Kenan Stadium with a 31–17 victory on Friday.
Mack Brown 2.0 still doesn’t have that signature win with national ramifications but he says the Tar Heels’ effort tells him a lot.
“I think it tells us that we’re really, really close to where we need to be,” said Brown, who suffered the the first loss in his second UNC stint by more than seven points. “We just absolutely got hit in the mouth and didn’t respond well. So, I told the team in the locker room we don’t have moral victories. But I’m really, really proud of their effort.”
While Carolina quarterback Sam Howell was held to a season-low 211 passing yards and only one touchdown pass for only the third time this season, Irish quarterback Ian Book was a magician.
Book, who completed 23 of 33 passes for 279 yards and one touchdown, came up with unorthodox flip throws for big completions twice and always seemed to find a way to keep the ball moving for Notre Dame (9-0, 7-0 ACC).
“Ian Book was as good tonight as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Brown said. “We couldn’t tackle him. I mean, we harassed him. We had people around him. There could have been sacks. We could not get him on the ground. And then he made some unbelievable plays on third down. So, I don’t know if he’s in the Heisman race or not but he should be.”
It looked so hopeful for Carolina after the Tar Heels scored on their first two drives. But UNC could only muster a field goal after that. After gaining 125 yards on their first 14 plays, the Tar Heels were held to 78 yards in the second half.
“Our offense was really, really good in the first half,” Brown said. “I actually thought we’d win the game and then Notre Dame just absolutely shut us down the second half. You saw I saw it. It looked like they whipped us up front.”
Notre Dame held Carolina to season lows in points (17), total offense (298), passing yards (211) and rushing yards (87). The 298 total yards were the lowest since last season’s loss to Clemson (290). UNC’s 17 points were its fewest since Sept. 27, 2018, against Miami (10).
“They got too much pressure on Sam. He didn’t have enough time to get the ball to the guys and we knew that was an issue unless we could run the ball well enough in this game,” Brown said. “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 need that and give Notre Dame credit for getting that done.”
Michael Carter rushed for more yards (57) against Notre Dame than the entire Clemson team did earlier this season (34), but they weren’t enough.
“But the difference was Clemson was able to protect well enough to throw for 400 and something yards, and I thought we had an opportunity to do that,” Brown said. “And we were doing it in the first half until we got really, really backed up. But we lost our momentum when they punted us down to the 2 twice, and we never got it back. So, it’s just a credit to them. They’re really, really good on defense against the run, they’re as good as anybody in the country.”
Javonte Williams was held to a season-low 28 yards on 11 carries. His previous low was 54 yards against Virginia. UNC rushed for a season-low 87 rushing yards (the previous low was 93 against Virginia.) Williams was held without a touchdown for the first time this season, falling one game short of tying Charlie Justice’s school-record of scoring a touchdown in nine consecutive games.
Penalties came up at bad times in many cases to extend Notre Dame drives. The Tar Heels’ 90 yards in penalties were the most since they had 96 at Boston College in their second game.
“That hurts,” said Chazz Surratt, who had seven tackles. “When we got guys covered and we make a holding or pass interference or something like that, I mean it is a blow because third down is the key down. I think it was on downs that we needed to get off the field and we weren’t able to. So, we just got to play smarter, be more disciplined and don’t give them those freebies. We ran good coverage but we ended up doing something like that and them throwing a penalty and that hurt us. They were able to extend drives.”
UNC’s defense went young many times. Freshmen seeing a lot of action on defense were end Des Evans, tackle Myles Murphy, nose tackle Kevin Hester, linebacker Kaimon Rucker and backs Ja’Qurious Conley and Tony Grimes. Grimes got called for pass interference on the Irish’s first touchdown drive of the second half.
“At the end of the day, we just didn’t make enough plays,” Howell said. “They made more plays than us and they did a really good job on third down. We didn’t make plays on third down and they were there to be made. Just got to get better and move forward. We pretty much knew everything they were doing. We just didn’t make enough plays and they outplayed us.”
Howell, who was sacked six times, lofted a pass between the arms of Irish defensive back TaRiq Bracy and into the hands of Emery Simmons in the right side of the end zone for a 6-yard scoring play just over five minutes into the game.
That came after Notre Dame went 3-and-out in its first drive with Surratt sacking Book on third-and-8 for a 13-yard loss. But the Irish couldn’t be stopped on their second drive, which went 75 yards in nine plays, ending with a 2-yard touchdown run by Kyren Williams. Williams added a TD four minutes later on a 4-yard pass from Book.
In between, Dyami Brown caught passes of 14 and 51 yards on the next drive that led to a five-yard Howell touchdown run.
A consequential drive late in the first half gave Carolina a 17-14 lead. Notre Dame’s leading tackler, Kyle Hamilton, was ejected after targeting UNC wide receiver Josh Downs. After the drive stalled, Grayson Atkins kicked a 42-yard field goal with 1:10 left.
Notre Dame made it 14-all at halftime with a 32-yard Jonathan Doerer field goal as time expired on a drive fueled by UNC penalties. Doerer was wide right on an attempt of the same distance in the third quarter.
After UNC’s initial second-half drive stalled, Notre Dame went 97 yards in 13 plays with wide receiver Ben Skowronek scoring on a 13-yard run. The drive extended when Jeremiah Gemmel drew an offside penalty on fourth-and-one.
“I felt like me and Ray [Vohasek] were on sides,” Gemmel said. “And what I heard from the ref was that we made a movement to try to go and so if you flinch on the line of scrimmage that’s considered a penalty. But, instead, they call the offsides.”
A 47-yard Kyren Williams run late in the fourth quarter was the beginning of the end to the Tar Heels’ chances. That jump-started an 89-yard, eight-play drive that produced a 1-yard touchdown run for Williams.
The Tar Heels play their only regular-season nonconference game next weekend, playing host on Dec. 5 to Western Carolina.
The Catamounts are 0–2 with road losses to Liberty (58–14) and Eastern Kentucky (49–17). The bulk of their schedule will be eight Southern Conference games from Feb. 20 until April 10. Western has lost four consecutive games, including a 66-3 loss at Alabama to finish the 2019 season.
No. 2 Notre Dame 31, No. 25 UNC 17
Pool photos by Robert Willett