Notre Dame picked up a much-needed victory yesterday when it knocked off North Carolina. The Irish defense had a very interesting performance. For the vast majority of the game the defense shut down what had been a potent UNC offense, but there were some big mistakes that proved costly.
We learned quite a bit about what this defense is, and what it could be in the victory. Here are my key takeaways of the defense against the Tar Heels.
1. Defensive Line Continues Strong Trend - Notre Dame's lines on both sides of the ball were expected to be strengths in 2022, but that certainly wasn't the case in the first two games. It played much better against California, proving to be a far more disruptive unit. It had some contain units but we saw flashes of what that line was supposed to be against the Bears.
Playing well once is just that, one good game. Doing it in back to back games is a trend, and the Irish are now trending well up front, as the unit also dominated the North Carolina offense.
North Carolina came into this matchup averaging 237.3 yards per game and 6.0 yards per carry, and the Heels have averaged at least 212.9 yards per game in the previous two seasons. Against Notre Dame, however, the UNC offense rushed for just 66 total yards, and the Tar Heel running backs combined for just 30 rushing yards on 15 carries. It was North Carolina's second lowest rushing total of the Phil Longo era, which began in 2019.
Notre Dame's defensive line was the driving force behind that success. North Carolina's run game is built on movement and finesse blocking, and the Irish defensive line attacked that all game long, constantly resetting the line in their favor. End Isaiah Foskey was brilliant on the edge against the run and the interior defenders whipped UNC all game long, and it didn't matter which defenders the Irish put in the game. But the reality is the entire defensive line was outstanding against the Heels.
2. Linebacker Play Was Better - Notre Dame's linebackers have been an issue all season, but we saw glimpses of improvement against UNC. The Irish coaches put them in good positions, it appeared they were either more comfortable with their responsibilities, or they were being asked to do less because the unit played much faster.
It was aggressive against the run, and the blitzes/stunts were much better timed and the backers did a better job getting past blockers. Senior Marist Liufau had his best game of the season, by far. He was good off the edge, he was much more decisive and he eliminated the mental mistakes in coverage.
We also got to see our first glimpse of Prince Kollie and he was a difference maker. Senior linebacker Jack Kiser was better against the run, playing Mike at times against North Carolina's spread out formations. Where Kiser struggled was in the pass game, and he was constantly either a step behind in man coverage or he didn't get up underneath intermediate routes in zone coverage.
This was certainly a step in the right direction, and the strong play of both the first and second levels was a big factors in North Carolina struggling offensively for much of the game.
3. Tackling Was A Major Improvement - Tackling has been a major issue for the Irish, even in last week's win over California. It was much, much better against North Carolina. Notre Dame played so much faster on defense against the Tar Heels, and you finally started to see the unit's speed show up more. They blew up the UNC screen game and the quick game was about making catches and either gaining minimal yards or being blown up after contact.
It's a great sign to see the in space success against a team like North Carolina, who usually makes a living in such situations. Flying to the football was a big part of it, but the form tackling was also much improved, especially from the secondary.
4. Situational Football Wasn't Good - Notre Dame was good for most of the game, but two areas where the Irish weren't quite as good was with situational football. Notre Dame allowed UNC to convert 6-14 third downs and both of their fourth down attempts. This proved especially problematic on the opening drive and late in the game when things were no longer in doubt.
Notre Dame also didn't finish in the red zone. Although they made North Carolina work for their red zone scores, forcing a fourth down and a third down in both instances, the end result was a touchdown in both trips.
5. Big Plays Were A Big Problem - I wrote about this last night after the game, but if you take away four big plays the Irish defense was as dominant as I've ever seen a team against North Carolina since Longo showed up. Notre Dame gave up just 367 yards to North Carolina, but the 6.1 yards per play was much higher than desired. The reason for that was the inability to limit big plays.
Two of the big plays came with the game no longer in doubt, but a 28-yard completion and a 43-yard completion set up both of North Carolina's first half scores. Notre Dame gave up 215 yards on just four completions, which included 80 and 64-yard touchdown passes.
North Carolina averaged 53.8 yards on those four completions, but gave up just 2.7 yards per play (152 yards) on the other 56 plays of the game. It didn't prove costly against the Tar Heels thanks to the Irish offense being so good, but it certainly needs to get cleaned up, especially the last two scores.
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