Irish wear down Tar Heels behind performances of Ian Book, Deon McIntosh
Benjamin Padanilam | Monday, October 9, 2017
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — When No. 21 Notre Dame made the decision to start sophomore Ian Book at quarterback against North Carolina in place of the injured Brandon Wimbush, it knew the offense was probably going to look a little different.
And in some ways it did; but in some ways, it did not.
The differences were apparent: The Irish (5-1) had two scoring drives of at least 11 plays and roughly five minutes of time elapsed that ended in touchdowns, its two longest touchdown drives of the season.
And Book attempted just one fewer passes (25) as the Irish had rushing attempts in the first half (26).
But the similarities were clear, too; the Irish also gashed the Tar Heels (1-5, 0-3 ACC) for two touchdowns that took less than 30 seconds to score on the heels of long running plays.
And Book attempted just six passes while the Irish ran the football 31 times in the second half.
The game’s first score didn’t come until the second quarter, as the Irish and Tar Heels traded punts — as well as a failed fourth-down conversion at midfield by Notre Dame — three times in the first quarter. It was an uncharacteristically slow start for the Irish, as they had scored on their first drive in four of their five games entering Saturday.
“I just think that it was a matter of execution across the board,” Irish captain and senior offensive lineman Mike McGlinchey said of Notre Dame’s first three drives. “We had a couple things that happened early, couple penalties that happened early that caused us to stall out, and we just can’t have that happen, especially with a young quarterback starting the game for us. We got to make his job as easy as it gets, and the other 10 guys on the field definitely didn’t do that to start the game.”
Then, with under five minutes left in the first quarter, Book led the Irish on a 15-play, 80-yard drive that culminated with a touchdown on the first play of the second period, giving the Irish a 7-0 lead.
And after another three-and-out by the Tar Heels, Irish fans were met with a familiar sight: a long touchdown run by captain and junior running back Josh Adams, this time a 73-yard burst that put the Irish ahead 14-0.
“He cut back behind the pullers, and we overran the play didn’t have anybody there,” Tar Heels head coach Larry Fedora said of Adams’ touchdown. “There was no support there. That’s the one play that I felt like, defensively, we gave up in the first half.”
But the Tar Heels wouldn’t let up, despite not securing a first down until within the nine-minute mark of the second quarter. After intercepting one of Book’s 25 first-half pass attempts at the Irish 47-yard line, North Carolina found its way into the end zone in six plays — with redshirt-freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt finding sophomore wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams for a 25-yard completion — to narrow the Irish lead to seven.
But after stalling on its next drive, Notre Dame forced a safety in the final 30 seconds of the half to go into the locker room with a 16-7 lead.
In the first half, Book threw as many passes as Wimbush had thrown over the course of any of Notre Dame’s last three wins. After the game, both Book and Irish head coach Brian Kelly said getting the sophomore comfortable early was part of the game plan coming in.
“We had a great week of practice,” Book said. “They allowed me to throw it around, which was awesome, and I think what you do in practice, you do in the game. So if you’re throwing it around in practice, I was ready and always will be ready to go out there and throw it in the game, whatever the coaches call.”
“We mostly wanted to take advantage of some of the play-action opportunities to complement our run game,” Kelly said of the frequency of passes thrown in the first half. “It was going to be a run-centered game for us, so getting some high-percentage throws on the move where he didn’t necessarily have to sit in the pocket and progression read across the field.”
And the run-centered game Kelly talked of became especially prominent in the second half, as the Irish got back to the ground-and-pound offense they’ve grown accustomed to in their three-straight wins prior to Saturday’s game.
But much of that damage would happen without Adams, who ran for 108 yards in the first half alone. After picking up a first down in Notre Dame’s first drive of the second half, Adams came off the field and did not return to the game, as Kelly said afterwards that Adams was suffering from dehydration.
But after a field goal by junior kicker Justin Yoon and a second interception from Book, the Irish had no problem relying on sophomore running back Deon McIntosh to carry the load the rest of the way.
With Notre Dame starting its third drive of the second half at the Tar Heels’ 46-yard line, McIntosh wasted no time making an impact. On just the second play of the drive, the sophomore burst up the middle and ran it 35 yards for a touchdown to give the Irish a 26-7 lead on the back of another quick score by the Irish offense.
“Deon’s a great player, great downhill runner, works hard every day in practice and it shows in the game,” Book said.
“I’m just running behind my pads, trusting my [offensive] line, just reading the blocks and just making a play,” McIntosh said. “Just stepping up when my number was called and just being ready.”
And after the Irish defense gave up a field goal to start the fourth quarter, McIntosh would once again make an impact. On the ensuing Notre Dame drive, he led a long, methodical drive — 11 plays and 5:06 time elapsed to be precise — before capping it off with a 24-yard touchdown run to give the Irish their final score in a 33-10 win.
“Yeah man, I saw that cut to the outside, and I just — [the coaches] tell me all the time to get upfield, and I just see that cut to the outside and got up and into the end zone,” McIntosh said.
And for having run for a team-high 124 yards and two touchdowns on just twelve carries in the second half to close the game out for the Irish, McIntosh was awarded the game ball.
“I think he showed today why he can be counted on as another very good back for us,” Kelly said of the sophomore. “He ran physical, he ran with vision, he ran with toughness and he got the game ball today — and deserved the game ball.”
While Book starting his first career game on the road wasn’t an ideal situation, Kelly was also pleased with how the young backup handled himself alongside McIntosh and the Irish ground game.
“He’s a very confident kid,” Kelly said of Book. “There are no jitters with him. I think he overthrew a couple of balls here and there, but for a first start, I was really pleased with what he did today. To win on the road is hard to do … but I thought he went in and did a lot of really good things today.”
So even with the new faces making the biggest plays for the Irish on the day, the result of Saturday’s game was the same as its previous three: a win. And at the end of the day, that was all Kelly could have asked for.
“All in all, to go on the road and win by 20-plus points for a third time this year, I’m really pleased with our guys in terms of their mental preparation and how they go on the road and attack this,” Kelly said. “It is hard to do — really hard to do — and I’m proud of them.”