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Book, Williams carry Irish to critical ACC win over UNC

| Friday, November 27, 2020

Since Ian Book couldn’t go home for Thanksgiving this year, he played Turkey Bowl* football last night, leading No. 2 Notre Dame to a 31-17 victory over No. 19 North Carolina. Book, who went 23 for 33 (70%) passing, played with an offensive flair reminiscent of schoolyard two-hand touch, with pitches and scrambles that made the fifth-year senior’s athleticism undeniable. The Irish now improve to a perfect 9-0 (8-0 ACC), with conference matchups against Syracuse (1-9, 1-8 ACC) and Wake Forest (4-3, 3-3 ACC) standing in the way of an undefeated regular season, which would be the second in three years.

*note: the Turkey Bowl is the Observer sports department’s annual two-hand touch football game

“Playmaker,” head coach Brian Kelly said of Book’s performance. “Playmakers make plays … I read an article in USA Today from some guy that really shouldn’t be writing articles about football — he should probably be doing something else — but they listed the top 10 quarterbacks, I think, in college football, and they didn’t even list Ian. He’s got a little fuel. He’s got a little chip on his shoulder as well. He won the matchup tonight. He’s a guy that makes plays.”

Sophomore running back Kyren Williams led the Irish offense on the day with three scores, and graduate transfer receiver Ben Skowronek was responsible for the remaining touchdown. In total, Notre Dame rushed for 199 yards and grabbed 279 through the air, holding North Carolina (6-3, 6-3 ACC) to 87 on the ground and 211 on receptions. Critical in the receiving game was deep threat Javon McKinley, a graduate student receiver who led the team with six receptions for 135 yards, the longest of which went for 53.

“There’s a lot to be said about holding [the North Carolina] offense to under 300 yards. That’s a pretty big accomplishment in terms of what they were able to do,” Kelly said. “Boy, they had two [running] backs, and those backs are legit now. They are legit backs. Both of them were averaging over 100 yards. I think they had combined 87 yards rushing today. That’s an outstanding defensive effort today. Then an offense that was very opportunistic and balanced. 280 yards passing, 200 yards rushing.”

Robert Willets | The Raleigh News and Observer
Irish sophomore running back Kyren Williams looks to slip out of a tackle during Notre Dame’s 31-17 win over North Carolina on Friday, Nov. 27. Williams accounted for three touchdowns on the day — his first career receiving touchdown plus two more on the ground — while also recording his fifth 100-yard rushing performance of the season

The absences of junior and graduate student offensive linemen Jarrett Patterson and Tommy Kraemer were noticeable but surmountable. Patterson’s substitute, sophomore Zeke Correll, sent Book a few errant snaps, and Josh Lugg, Kraemer’s replacement, missed a few blocks, but the quarterback’s shiftiness under pressure allowed the Irish offense to press on.

“I thought that Zeke did a great job stepping in as a first-time starter,” Kelly said. “To get the kind of ball control that we had, especially in the second half, your center’s got to be doing a great job with protections. They threw a lot of stuff at us that we hadn’t seen before. His recognition was really good. Josh Lugg really stepped in there. He’s a big fellow. He can get people moved off the line of scrimmage. Again, we knew that both these guys were going to step in and play well for us.”

Defensively, senior linebacker Drew White stepped up in a big way too, recording a half sack and two tackles for loss to go with three solo tackles and five total tackles. Also key to Irish success was graduate student defensive end Ade Ogundeji, who had two sacks and two tackles for loss of his own. Linebacker Marist Liufau also shone, with Kelly attributing the sophmore’s increased minutes to his “length and quickness.”

In the opening drive, Notre Dame looked like a team fresh off a bye and a week of finals: after three quick downs for -11 yards, the Irish had to punt it away. The Tar Heels had an answer to the tune of 50 yards and seven plays for a score that took just under three minutes — a drive riddled by missed tackles and poor defensive coverage from the Irish. Once Notre Dame took possession again, things looked more normal with Williams, freshman tight end Michael Mayer and Book working together to even the score, a Williams two-yard rush doing the trick.

But UNC wasted no time notching another touchdown, as the poor defense for Notre Dame continued. In the third series it was all Book, as the senior quarterback’s athleticism shone through with a deep ball to Javon McKinley and a red-zone scramble that led to a Kyren Williams touchdown pass. In less than two minutes, the Irish marched 82 yards to even it at 14 on a four-yard Williams completion, the score that persisted through the end of the first.

Notre Dame and North Carolina traded a couple of punts to open the second, but defensively, the Irish looked better as they seemed to finally find tackling form. On the Tar Heels’ closing drive of the quarter, the Irish suffered their first penalty of the day as free safety Kyle Hamilton was ejected for targeting. UNC took the opportunity to net a 42-yard field goal, a favor which senior kicker Jon Doerer returned as the second half expired to send the Irish into the half tied at 17.

Robert Willets | The Raleigh News and Observer
Irish senior safety Houston Griffith tries to defuse the situation as North Carolina receiver Dyami Brown says something for which he would receive an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. Griffith had to play significant minutes in Kyle Hamilton’s stead after the sophomore All-American safety was ejected for targeting in the first half.

North Carolina punted it away to start the third quarter, and the Irish found the end zone again behind several key penalty calls in their favor; a critical offside call on fourth-and-one extended Notre Dame’s drive once, and junior receiver Joe Wilkins picked up a pass interference flag a few plays later on 2nd-and-10 to move the chains again. On second down in the red zone, Skowronek ran a jet sweep and took the handoff from Book to bring the first Irish lead of the day, 24-17, halfway through the third quarter.

The Notre Dame defense then forced a three-and-out, but the Irish couldn’t capitalize on the board. The subsequent 57-yard drive ended without a score as Doerer missed a field goal wide right. UNC couldn’t convert either as they punted on their last drive of the quarter, and Notre Dame extended their following drive into the beginning of the fourth, but were forced to punt on the quarter’s first snap.

A three-and-out started the fourth for the Tar Heels. Notre Dame couldn’t keep their offensive momentum going either despite a flashy forward pitch from Book to Mayer mid-drive, and the Irish punted again. When UNC got the ball back, it was another empty possession, and Notre Dame took control with just under six minutes left in the game. Williams helped Notre Dame run the clock down, and he found the end zone himself for the third time on the day, leading the Irish to a 31-17 lead with 1:20 to play. The Tar Heels couldn’t make anything of their final possession, and Notre Dame closed the evening on the right side of the 14-point victory.

Robert Willets | The Raleigh News and Observer
Irish junior tight end George Tackas dives for the pylon on 3rd down with just under 90 seconds left in the 4th quarter during Notre Dame’s 31-17 win over North Carolina on Friday, Nov. 27. Tackas recorded just his second reception of the season on the play, but managed to get the Irish a first down on the goal line, and they proceeded to ice the game on a one-yard touchdown run by sophomore running back Kyren Williams that established the final margin.

Looking ahead, Notre Dame will return to South Bend for the season’s final home game next Saturday against Syracuse. Kickoff time has yet to be scheduled, but Kelly emphasized the importance of this week’s win, asserting that with it, his team is one step closer to a conference title.

“Really great win on the road against an outstanding opponent in North Carolina,” he said. “Prolific offense, our defense was outstanding, especially in the second half. One of those road wins that really shows the metal of your football team. It gets us to our ninth win and puts us in a great position to clinch an ACC berth in the championship game with one more win. Our guys are looking forward to playing at home next week. Good win.”

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