Notre Dame went on the road and grinded out a 31-17 victory over 19th ranked North Carolina, handing the Tar Heels their first home loss of the season.
It wasn't always a pretty performance by the Irish offense, but they came up big when it mattered.
*** The offense had a bit of an up-and-down performance, but it stepped up in key situations. North Carolina shredded the Irish defense on its first two series, but Notre Dame's offense matched both early Tar Heel touchdowns with scores of their own, which gave the defense time to adjust and get rolling.
*** The negative is the offense failed to put away the Tar Heels in the third quarter, and a better performance on that side of the ball would have resulted in a far more convincing victory. But late in the fourth quarter, when the offense needed a long, time-consuming drive that got points that's exactly what they did, going 89 yards and taking over four minutes off the clock to put the game away.
*** In between there was a lot of sloppiness and missed opportunities from the offense, and there will be plenty to clean up from this game.
*** North Carolina spent a lot of the game crashing the line of scrimmage with its linebackers, and Notre Dame never really adjusted to that. There were RPO opportunities, screen game opportunities and max protection opportunities that Notre Dame could have gone to but didn't, and it stalled the unit out far too often. Before the game I wrote about the fact UNC would do this with their linebackers and that Notre Dame would need answers, but the staff couldn't find answers for it.
*** The run game was kept in check for much of the game because of this, but when the run game had to be on its game it stepped up. Notre Dame racked up 67 of its 199 rushing yards on its final full drive as it put the game away.
*** There should be plenty of self-scouting and analysis by the staff that shows they can and must play a lot better on that side of the ball. The Irish offense was fortunate that its defense played so brilliantly, but they did step up in clutch situations, which is important.
*** There are two ways to evaluate and grade the play of quarterback Ian Book. One is technical and the other is playmaking/impact. The first grade is going to be ugly. That involves being clean in the pocket, going through progressions, making the right reads on a consistent basis, handling the pressures appropriately, etc. There should be plenty of discussion between Book and Tommy Rees with this part of the game.
*** Book rushed too many reads and missed too many opportunities to move the chains with his arm, whether it was not finding the open receiver or rushing his footwork and not getting the ball out accurately.
*** Then there's the other way to evaluate a QB performance, and in that area Book graded out extremely well. Book played hard in this game, he was gamey, he made a lot of plays, and he remained poise throughout the game. His scrambling was a big part of this victory, and Book twice flicked the ball out as he was on the run, and the second time he did it the Irish converted a third-down.
*** In the past Brian Kelly would point to Book's record as evidence he was a top quarterback, and I would just roll my eyes. Book managed things, but Notre Dame wasn't winning because of him. In the last three games that has changed dramatically, and this was yet another example. Was he perfect? No way. Was he sloppy and off target at times? Absolutely. Did he put the offense on his shoulders at times, make clutch plays and make a lot of heart? Definitely. This was a performance where you say Book played a huge role in the victory.
*** Running back Kyren Williams had his numbers padded a bit on the final drive, but it evened out what was otherwise a quality performance. North Carolina was geared towards stopping the run, but Williams did a good job staying patient, letting blocks develop and maximizing the little room that was there. When the offensive line finally started moving UNC around, Williams responded with a 47-yard run on the game-clinching drive.
*** Williams and freshman Chris Tyree were both a bit inconsistent in pass protection. There were a few quality pick ups, but there were also a few too many misses, especially on edge rushers. Tyree ran well on limited opportunities, and his 16-yard gain early set up the first score for the Irish.
*** Senior wide receiver Javon McKinley clinched the "go-to" receiver role in this game. McKinley has emerged as a top target in recent games, but when Book was in trouble tonight you often saw him look to McKinley, and Book is clearly comfortable taking downfield shots to McKinley. The veteran wideout took advantage of his quarterback's confidence by hauling in six catches for 135 yards.
*** McKinley did a little bit of everything for Notre Dame. He worked the middle of the short zones, he did damage on the outside on stop and comeback routes, and he made plays down the field. It was his ability to win one-on-ones down the field that had the biggest impact. McKinley had gains of 43 and 53 yards in the win, and both were contested plays where he out-played a defender for the football.
*** Wideout Ben Skowronek had trouble getting open in the game, but he blocked well and made a quality run for a 13-yard gain on a jet sweep.
*** False starts by McKinley and Avery Davis were puzzling and killed a second half Irish drive.
*** Tight end Tommy Tremble had a drop on a screen pass early that cost him a chance for a quality gain. He also didn't come down with a contested throw up the sideline. It was a late throw by Book and it would have been a tough throw, but Tremble needs to make those plays.
*** As expected, his blocking in the game was outstanding. Tremble thrived as a lead blocker, in space and on the edge.
*** Freshman tight end Michael Mayer had yet another third-down conversion that required him to pick up yards after the catch. He also had a clutch third-down catch on a wild shovel pass from Book. Mayer finished with four catches for 54 yards, and his route running in the game was outstanding. North Carolina pressed the Irish pass catchers a lot, but in multiple situations Mayer beat his defender badly off the line with quality release technique, and then got separation with an impressive stem and top end.
*** Mayer's run blocking was a bit up and down, but he battled. He is still learning proper angles and leverage as a run blocker, and that got him in trouble at times in this game, but his effort was there.
*** I'll have more analysis of the individual performance of all the linemen in my post-game grades, but there were some things to discuss now.
*** As a whole this was far from a clean game from the line, and from a technical/execution standpoint is was arguably their worst performance of the season. Some of that was to be expected when you consider the Irish were playing without two starters. There will be plenty for the coaches to clean up, and part of the struggles were about UNC loading up the box and being so aggressive with their stunts. It was obvious UNC had a read on the Irish snap count early in the game.
*** While there was plenty to correct and negatively remark regarding the execution from the line, I felt the unit battled and competed all game long. They kept getting hit in the face by the UNC pressures, but they kept pushing back, and when the game was on the line the big boys opened up holes for the backs to help put the game away. The unit was outstanding near the goal line, driving UNC off the ball on multiple occasions.
*** Center Zeke Correll performed well in his first start in many areas, but he also had some first-game jitters/miscues. Twice he snapped the ball off his butt, and it looked like he thought the quarterback was under center. I expect this to get corrected quickly. Correll battled hard in the game, he worked well to the second level and even when UNC beat him into the gap with a stunt or blitzed he was able to get a body on defenders.
*** It was obvious that UNC was trying to exploit Correll's inexperience, and at times they did, but I felt the redshirt freshman played with poise, he competed and he showed a lot of promise.
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