Notre Dame went on the road and handled #19 North Carolina, beat the Heels 31-17. The offense was up-and-down, but at the end of the day the unit scored enough points to win. There were several takeaways from that side of the ball.
Big Game Javon
There is no question who the top wideout is for Notre Dame, as fifth-year senior Javon McKinley has become entrenched in that role over the last month. McKinley has played really good football during Notre Dame’s last five games, a trend that continued against North Carolina.
McKinley did a little bit of everything for the Irish, which is why I gave him player of the game honors. He blocked at a high level, he worked the middle of the field, he was a chain mover on intermediate outside routes and he gave Notre Dame its two biggest pass plays of the game.
It’s obvious that quarterback Ian Book has developed a much greater level of confidence in McKinley, to the point where he will just throw balls up to the veteran wideout. This isn’t a criticism, and it’s something the offense absolutely needs. McKinley rewarded Book for his confidence against North Carolina, and his two big gains (53 yards, 43 yards) were game changers.
There’s another aspect to his performance yesterday, and that is that it marked the second time this season that McKinley stepped up in a big game. McKinley has three games with at least 100 yards receiving, and two have come against the two ranked opponents Notre Dame faced.
He hauled in five passes for 102 yards against Clemson and followed that up with six catches for 135 yards against North Carolina. McKinley also had five catches for 107 yards against Florida State, another night game for the Irish.
When the lights have been brightest this season, Javon McKinley has been at his best.
Correll Holds His Own
Redshirt freshman center Zeke Correll’s first career start came on the road, against a nationally ranked opponent, with a College Football Playoff berth on the line, against an opponent that was bound and determined to attack him all game long.
That was quite a bit on the shoulders of the young blocker, but Correll handled himself well. He had two muffed snaps, and he certainly wasn’t perfect, but there were a lot of positives to take from the game. Correll didn’t make any of the mistakes you see from a young, nervous center, mainly sailing the ball over the quarterbacks head. He battled and played physical football from the outset.
Correll battled up the middle against a defense designed to attack the A gaps in hopes of exploiting the new starters at center and right guard. Correll handled the stunts and pressures well, and even when the Tar Heels were able to get into the A gaps against him, the young center was able to get hands and a body on the defenders, which prevents sacks and negative plays.
I was impressed with his quickness off the ball and his punch, and Correll was impressive when working to the second level. He’ll need to clean up his footwork off the ball a bit, he’ll need to mix up the snap timing a bit to now allow defenses to key the snap as much as UNC did, and obviously he’ll need to clean up his snap consistency, but this was a good first step for the talented young center.
Fast Start, Strong Finish
The second quarter, most of the third quarter and half of the fourth quarter were relatively ugly for the Notre Dame offense, which is why this game was even as competitive as it was. Based on how dominant the Irish defense was and how mediocre UNC has been on defense all season, this was a game that should have been an even bigger blowout.
Having said that, the offense did enough to win, and how it started was incredibly important.
Notre Dame went three-and-out on its first offensive series, and the lost yards gave North Carolina the ball at midfield, and the Tar Heels turned that into a touchdown. In response, the Irish offense went on a 9-play drive that took four and a half minutes off the clock. North Carolina responded with a score of its own, but the Irish answered with a quick strike drive that tied the game.
These two drives were vitally important to the outcome. Notre Dame could not afford to fall behind North Carolina in this game, and answering the first two scores kept the Tar Heels from gaining too much momentum. It also gave the Irish defense an opportunity to make much-needed adjustments without falling behind.
Notre Dame let North Carolina hang in this game much longer than it should have, and the offense had multiple missed opportunities to create separation. But late in the game, with the game still on the line, the offense - led by the line - went on an 8-play, 89-yard drive that took over four and a half minutes off the clock, and when the Irish reached the end zone the game was all but over.
The Irish weren’t at their best on offense, far from it, but when they needed to step up and get points they did just that.
Adjustments Were Slow
North Carolina did some things in this game that gave Notre Dame problems, and the Irish staff was a bit slow to respond, if it responded at all. UNC was very aggressive attacking the run game, especially up the middle. The Tar Heels are normally aggressive with their backers, and we saw even more of that against Notre Dame.
Notre Dame’s response was basically to go through stretches where the run game wasn’t being focused on. While that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since UNC was geared towards stopping the run, the pass game answers didn’t really address the problem. We didn’t see any RPOs designed to attack the blitzing LBs, or play-actions that exploited the safeties that were tasked with protecting the pressures, and we didn’t see any screens designed to attack the zones being vacated by the blitzers.
Notre Dame simply wore UNC down, but the failure to find answers for much of the second, third and early fourth quarter allowed this game to be more competitive than it should have, and many of the plays that were made during those stretches were more about Book improvising than it was due to adjustments or play calls.
Pass Game Struggles vs. Press
North Carolina also did a lot of pressing against Notre Dame tight ends and wideouts. Michael Mayer and McKinley had success with their releases, but there were far too many snaps where the rest of the pass catchers, and even McKinley, had trouble getting separation.
Far too many of the pass concepts were slow developing against a UNC defense that was often blitzing Book, and that prevented him from settling into the pocket. By the time routes were getting open he was already moving around.
The numbers (23-33, 279 yards) look good, but there were several plays made through improvisation, and you can’t always count on that, especially against the better teams that Notre Dame will face (Clemson, playoff opponents). This also isn’t the first time Notre Dame’s pass game has been altered negatively by press corners. The blueprint is out there, but fortunately most of Notre Dame’s opponents this year aren’t good enough to take advantage. Against better defenses (Clemson, playoff opponents), Tommy Rees and the staff will need to find schematic and formational answers to this.
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