By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — On a day that started with Carolina’s defense looking like it had finally gotten its act together, the Tar Heels quickly helped a previously inept Notre Dame offense have its best game of the season.
UNC (3–1) was manhandled on the line after holding the Irish to 40 first-quarter yards, and the number of blown coverages by the defense easily outnumbered the big plays it made.
Combine that with a suddenly inconsistent offense, and it added up to a 45–32 Irish victory Saturday before a sellout Kenan Stadium crowd.
“I’m proud of the way the kids fought,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “We can get better as a team but they didn’t quit. They gave everything.”
It degenerated to the point that after cornerback Tony Grimes was called for a third-quarter late hit, linebacker Noah Taylor yelled at Grimes. Grimes appeared to take a swipe at Taylor. Sadly for the Tar Heels, that was more fight than the defense put up most of the day.
“Guys are passionate about the sport,” linebacker Cedric Gray, who led UNC with 13 tackles, said of the intense sideline interactions between defensive players during the game. “Things got chippy but we’ll handle it as a team.”
As if his defense’s performance wasn’t enough to drive Brown crazy, a questionable pass interference call against Gray put him over the top. He drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty one play before the Irish pushed their lead to 38–14.
“If I feel like something has been taken away from the kids, it’s my responsibility to stand up for them,” said Brown, who said that was the first unsportsmanlike penalty of his career. He said that he thought the referee was mad that he came out onto the field.
Gray said he didn’t get an explanation for the call from the referees and he didn’t ask.
Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer got whatever he wanted against Carolina. He bettered his average of 48.3 reception yards per game by halftime on his way to 88 yards.
By halftime, the Irish had already matched their season-best point total and gained 301 total yards, bettering their season average of 300.3. They finished with 578 yards.
“The difference in this game tonight is that they ran the ball and we didn’t,” Brown said after his team rushed for only 66 yards compared to 287 for Notre Dame.
The Irish (2–2) went from averaging 3.3 yards per rush before Saturday to 5.6 against UNC. They averaged 6.8 yards per play after getting only 4.8 per play in their first three games.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Drake Maye had his moments but also had a costly fumble and never had the offense in a consistent rhythm.
“I’ve got to do a better job doing my part and helping this team,” said Maye, who was 17 of 32 for 301 yards, five touchdowns and a 183.7 passer rating. “We’ve got to learn from it.”
Despite getting his two best passing targets back in Josh Downs and Antoine Green, Maye’s offensive line had a rough day blocking on runs, which made passing harder.
“I wouldn’t say that I was 100%, but I was good to go,” said Downs who, like Green, caught two touchdown passes. He said he wasn’t really favoring the left leg he hurt in the opener against Florida A&M.
The trenches made a huge difference.
“They’ve got great players up front,” Brown said. “They’re aggressive. I think they were talented and they beat us down. I thought our offensive line did a masterful job in pass protection. When you can’t run, it’s hard to pass-protect.”
Maye elevated a fourth-and-goal pass over cornerback TaRiq Bracy in the end zone’s left side and Downs caught it for a 3-yard touchdown pass on the game’s opening drive. Maye ran for 33 yards of the 76 yards on the 12-play drive.
After the play, Downs said he told Bracy, “I just dunked on you, bro.”
Notre Dame took advantage of blown pass coverage on two plays to tie it 3:03 into the second quarter, both on quarterback Drew Pyne’s 34-yard pass to Logan Diggs and his 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Michael Mayer. Pyne hit wide receiver Lorenzo Styles on a 30-yard scoring pass nearly three minutes later.
Maye connected with J.J. Jones on a 43-yard pass to set up a 3-yard touchdown pass to Downs that tied it at 14 just over three minutes after the Irish’s TD to tie it at 14.
Notre Dame easily got the lead back on a 75-yard drive that running back Audric Estime capped with a one-yard scoring run and took a 24-14 halftime lead on Blake Grupe’s 40-yard field goal with 23 seconds left.
Pyne connected with a wide-open Diggs on a 29-yard touchdown pass on the initial second-half drive, then a Maye fumble set up a one-yard Estime touchdown run.
Maye hit Green in stride on an 80-yard scoring pass down the right sideline with 4:08 left to cut the deficit to 18 after the two-point conversion attempt failed. It was Green’s season debut.
There was no hope of a comeback with how UNC played defense, though. The teams traded touchdowns early in the fourth quarter, with Notre Dame scoring on Chris Tyree’s 1-yard run and UNC on Maye’s 4-yard pass to Omarion Hampton.
Maye connected again with Green with 1:44 left, this time on 64-yard touchdown strike.
NOTES: Hampton has scored a touchdown in all four games. … UNC has lost five consecutive games coming off an open date. … Notre Dame’s 14 second-quarter points matched its season-high for a quarter (fourth quarter of the loss to Marshall). … Downs had returned punts, but Cam’Ron Kelly handled that duty on the Irish’s only punt. … Carolina is back at Kenan Stadium next week for the second of three consecutive home games, welcoming Virginia Tech (2–2, 1–0 ACC), which lost 33–10 at home Thursday to West Virginia. It will start at 3:30 and air on ACC Network. … Press box seats were reserved for the Panthers (3 seats), Commanders, Jets, Lions and Saints, as well as the Gator Bowl, Shrine Bowl, the Cheez-It Bowl (2 seats) and the Hula Bowl. … UNC honored its national champion women’s lacrosse team, its Final Four men’s basketball team, its ACC champion baseball team and its men’s golf team at halftime.
Notre Dame 45, UNC 32
|27||Saturday||W, 56–24||Home||Florida A&M||1–0|
|3||Saturday||W, 63–61||Boone||Appalachian State||2–0|
|10||Saturday||W, 35–28||Atlanta||Georgia State||3–0|
|24||Saturday||L, 45–32||Home||No. 19 |
|1||Saturday||W, 41–10||Home||Virginia Tech||4–1, 1–0 ACC|
|8||Saturday||W, 27–24||Miami |
|Miami||5–1, 2–0 ACC|
|15||Saturday||W, 38–35||Durham||Duke||6–1, 3–0 ACC|
|29||Saturday||W, 42–24||Home||Pittsburgh||7–1, 4–0 ACC|
|5||Saturday||W, 31–28||Charlottesville||Virginia||8–1, 5–0 ACC|
|12||Saturday||W, 36–34||Winston-Salem||Wake Forest||9–1, 6–0 ACC|
|19||Saturday||L, 21–17||Home||Georgia Tech||9–2, 6–1 ACC|
|25||Friday||L, 30–27, |
|Home||N.C. State||9–3, 6–2 ACC|
|3||Saturday||8 p.m.||Charlotte||No. 10 Clemson||ABC|
Photo via @GoHeels