Irish Insider: No Carolina blues
Ken Fowler | Monday, November 6, 2006
No. 11 Notre Dame had both highs and lows Saturday, but the explosive Irish offense was too much for struggling North Carolina.
Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn was 23-of-35 for 346 yards passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions as the Irish secured a 45-26 victory at Notre Dame Stadium. He compiled most of his stats early, with 148 yards and two touchdowns coming in the first quarter as coach Charlie Weis had the Irish operate out of the no-huddle offense for most of the period.
“I said all week that I was trying to control the tempo of the game, and we came out of the no huddle and [Quinn] executed very well,” Weis said. “Those four touchdown passes, no interceptions, that’s usually a pretty good day at the office.”
Behind the steady play of Quinn, Notre Dame took a 31-13 lead into the half. Halfway through the third quarter, the Tar Heels cut their deficit to 38-26 on a 72-yard pass from North Carolina quarterback Joe Dailey to freshman wide out Hakeem Nicks.
But there would be no Tar Heel upset in South Bend.
The Irish defense clamped down, and North Carolina gained just 32 yards of offense in the final 22 minutes of the contest.
“I thought the defense came out and set the tempo of the game,” Weis said. “We got after them pretty good. I think that third quarter, giving a couple big plays up, that didn’t exactly lift my spirits, but I did like how hard they played.”
And with the way Quinn played, the Irish defense had room to bend.
Notre Dame found the end zone early, scoring on its opening drive. Utilizing the no-huddle offense that has brought the Irish so much success this season, the senior quarterback directed a six-play, 65-yard drive in just 2:03. He hit Irish wide out Samardzija over the middle for a 37-yard gain to the North Carolina 7 and two plays later found Irish wide receiver Rhema McKnight on a quick out for the score.
Samardzija finished with 177 yards on six catches, and McKnight added 56 yards and two touchdowns on six catches of his own.
“I think North Carolina tried to get a lot of guys in the box and make us one-dimensional,” Quinn said. “But if they want to play that game, we’re willing to play it as well.”
Tar Heels linebacker Durell Mapp, Jr., said Notre Dame’s personnel weren’t as good as the Irish scheme.
“Brady Quinn is a good quarterback, but [the Irish] really aren’t different from what we see week-to-week,” he said. “Actually, they are a little slower than most teams in the ACC. However, they run a very precise offense.”
Quinn eclipsed 200 yards passing on just Notre Dame’s fourth possession of the game. On a third-and-2 from the Tar Heels 45, Quinn scrambled to the outside for a 3-yard gain to keep the drive alive.
After a 14-yard intentional grounding penalty, Quinn rifled a pass to Samardzija, who went 46 yards to the Tar Heel 12 on a post pattern. Two plays later, Quinn hit McKnight for a 14-yard passing touchdown.
“I gave [the defender] a small, little move, and I guess he bit on it, and ended up slipping, too,” McKnight said. “I just came wide open, Brady found me, and I got in the end zone.”
Quinn’s second touchdown toss of the first quarter came with 1:47 left in the period. Quinn capped a 10-play, 74-yard drive with an 11-yard touchdown pass to senior tight end John Carlson.
Carlson caught the ball four yards short of the end zone, was hit by two defenders short of the end zone and rolled over the back of one to extend the ball over the goal line.
Quinn said he didn’t expect Carlson to cross the plane.
“It was a great play on his part [to] just kept driving and driving,” Quinn said. “When you look at that play, and who John is as a person, that explains his persona. He’s a hard-working kid, and he’s going to keep working, working, working until he gets in – and he did.”
But it wasn’t all easy living for the Irish. After Notre Dame took its early 7-0 lead, the Tar Heels showed they would not go down easy.
The Tar Heels lone offensive touchdown of the first half came on their second possession. Starting from its own 20, North Carolina took chunks of yardage against the Irish at a time. Tar Heels running back Ronnie McGill had runs of 11 and 35 yards on the drive, and Dailey found Jesse Holley in the near left corner of the end zone for a 12-yard score.
“There was a lot of passion out there today,” Dailey said. “However, once again we beat ourselves and Notre Dame didn’t beat us. We were confident in attacking them today, but we didn’t make enough plays on both sides of the ball.”
North Carolina’s only other score in the first 30 minutes came after Carl Gioia’s 27-yard field goal put the Irish up 24-7. Tar Heels kickoff return specialist Brandon Tate took Ryan Burkart’s ensuing kickoff 90 yards for a touchdown, breaking tackle attempts by Irish defensive lineman Casey Cullen and cornerback Terrail Lambert in the process.
The Tar Heels had an easier time getting their offense going in the second half.
North Carolina went 83 yards on 10 plays on the first drive out of the locker room. Dailey hit wide receiver Hakeem Nicks for a key 42-yard gain during the drive, and Dailey found Nicks again for a 13-yard touchdown on a fade route to put it in for the Tar Heels.
Hicks finished with six catches for 171 yards, including five for 150 in the third quarter alone.
“[Hicks is] a freshman player that we knew coming in had an opportunity to be a really, really good player, not only as a freshman who will really develop into a great player over time,” Tar Heels coach John Bunting said. “He’s got a tremendous work ethic in my opinion and … he has a warrior mentality, which is what you need to be a good football player.”
But Notre Dame responded quickly. Irish receiver David Grimes returned the ensuing kickoff 20 yards to the North Carolina 43, and three plays later Samardzija hauled in a lofted pass from Quinn on the goal line. The 6-foot-5 receiver fell into the end zone as the Irish staked a 38-19 lead with 8:10 left in the third quarter.
The touchdown reception gave Samardzija 23 for his career – all in the last two seasons – to pass former Irish wide out Derrick Mayes’ for the program record.
If Notre Dame’s answer was quick, North Carolina’s was brutally efficient. Dailey was flushed out of the pocket on first down and found Nicks again, this time for a 72-yard touchdown pass. With that, the Tar Heels cut the Irish lead to 38-26.
“Big players step up in big time games,” Nicks said. “I felt like they weren’t respecting me because I was a freshman, so I wanted to make a big impact.”
Irish safety and punt returner Tom Zbikowski gave the Irish a 31-13 lead with 2:54 left in the first half on a 52-yard punt return score.
Notre Dame brought 10 men to the line of scrimmage as North Carolina punter David Wooldridge set to kick from the back of his own end zone. Zbikowski caught the ball with more than 10 yards of open space, used a block and darted up the middle to the end zone.
Irish running back Darius Walker scored on 1-yard run with 11:13 left in the fourth quarter to give Notre Dame the decisive 45-26 lead.