By R.L. Bynum
While North Carolina showed signs of putting it all together on offense after a weekend off, there still are plenty of issues for the Tar Heels’ young defense to work out.
No. 11 Notre Dame (7–1) drove with ease on UNC (4–4), particularly in the second half, on its way to a 44–34 victory Saturday night in South Bend, Ind.
After Carolina forced an Irish punt on the game’s opening drive, Notre Dame scored on the next five possessions (other than a one-play possession at the end of the first half), meeting little resistance until late in the third quarter.
That bit of resistance was Carolina’s defense forcing a 3-and-out. But that unit allowed a 91-yard touchdown run by running back Kyren Williams at the start of the fourth quarter on Notre Dame’s next offensive play.
“He was tackled in the backfield and he just bounced out completely and that’s one of the best runs I’ve ever seen,” said Brown, who called the run a backbreaker.
Williams appeared to be stopped, but changed directions and sped around the left side and down the left sideline.
“Both teams ran up and down the field and neither defense played great,” Coach Mack Brown said. “The guys kept trying; they kept trying. I was proud of our offense and the way they competed. Defensively, we just gave up too many plays and didn’t force sacks and we didn’t force turnovers.”
When asked what the big issues on defense were, Brown said that he didn’t know.
“They scored too easily, I know that,” he said. “We’re not good enough not to make all the plays yet.”
Notre Dame’s D.J. Brown intercepted Sam Howell’s pass on the first play of the ensuing drive. That led to a 20-yard Jonathan Doerer field goal. It was the first time Howell has thrown interceptions in three consecutive games in his career.
Forcing the field goal there was a positive for Carolina’s defense, and Howell cut the lead to 41–34 on a 31-yard scoring run with 7:23 left. With that score, Howell is responsible for a school-record 101 career touchdowns.
But when UNC’s defense had to get off the field to give Howell another chance while it was a one-score game, it couldn’t do it. Doerer’s 21-yard field goal with 1:37 left put the game away.
The Irish, who had five scoring drives of at least 73 yards, became the latest team to toy with UNC by using two quarterbacks.
Backup Tyler Buchner, who is Notre Dame’s running threat, threw only his third touchdown pass of the season. Starter Jack Coan, not known for his mobility, ran for a touchdown for the first time this season. Add in the ground threat from Williams, and it was too much for the Tar Heels to contain.
UNC career passing yards
Sam Howell 9,419
T.J Yates 9,377
Darian Durant 8,755
Carolina’s big-play guys made big plays against Notre Dame.
Howell connected on 24 of 31 passes for 341 yards and a touchdown (and even booted a 35-yard punt) and ran for 91 yards and a score. Howell passed T.J. Yates to set the career passing yards record with 9,419 in 33 games. Yates collected 9,377 in 45 games.
UNC total offense yards
Marquise Williams 10,423
Sam Howell 10,185
Darian Durant 9,630
T.J. Yates 9,044
“I thought we played a pretty good game on offense,” Howell said. “I think there were still a lot of mistakes and I had the late pick that really hurt us.”
Wide receiver Josh Downs pulled down 10 catches for 142 yards and running back Ty Chandler ran for 83 yards and two touchdowns.
Chandler has four plays of 50 or more yards on the season, including a 53-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, and is the first Tar Heel to run for two touchdowns against the Irish since Don Klochak did it in 1958.
“I think we’re certainly capable of being one of the top teams in the country,” Howell said. “I just think we lack consistency.”
A big plus for the offense was integrating more receivers into the passing game. Eight Tar Heels caught passes, including five for 83 yards and a touchdown for Antoine Green.
But Carolina couldn’t come up with nearly as many points as it needed because of the defensive lapses and costly penalties.
“We’ve had times where we were really getting off the field on third down but we’re having penalties and those end up being points,” UNC linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said.
A 47-yard Williams punt return set up a 7-yard touchdown pass from Buchner to Avery Davis to give Notre Dame a 7–0 lead with 3:25 left in the first quarter.
Howell hit Downs on a 41-yard pass play down the right sideline, with Downs making an over-the-shoulder catch and juggling the ball before securing it. Two plays later, on the first play of the second quarter, Chandler took a pitch and scored on a 3-yard run by slipping the ball just inside of the pylon on the right side of the end zone to tie it at 7.
The teams traded second-quarter field goals, a 31-yarder by Doerer with 10:01 left and a 39-yard boot from UNC’s Grayson Atkins with 3:22 remaining. The Tar Heels settled on that field goal after a Marcus McKethan holding penalty wiped out a Howell touchdown run.
After a questionable Trey Morrison face-mask penalty extended an Irish drive, Coan connected with Kevin Austin in the left side of the end zone on a 21-yard scoring play with 1:23 left.
Atkins’ 26-yard field goal with two seconds left cut the Irish’s halftime lead to 17–13.
On the first drive of the second half, Chandler zipped by the left side of the line, with the help of McKethan’s nice pulling block, and dashed 53 yards for a touchdown and a brief Tar Heels lead.
Fifth-eight seconds later, Coan ran for a 21-yard run for the Irish for his first scoring run of the season.
After the Irish went 81 yards on 11 plays to produce a 1-yard Williams scoring run, UNC quickly responded with a 6-play, 75-yard drive for a 33-yard Howell-to-Green touchdown pass two minutes later.
UNC returns home Saturday to face No. 13 Wake Forest (8–0) in a game that won’t count in the ACC standings. The Deacons rolled past Duke on Saturday 45–7.
No. 11 Notre Dame 44, UNC 34
Photo via @UNCFootball