Linebackers and linemen shine in Irish’s win over UNC
Aidan Thomas | Sunday, November 29, 2020
Somewhat overlooked in the aftermath of the euphoria that was Notre Dame’s 47-40 double-overtime victory over Clemson was the defensive struggles that seemed to plague the Irish, particularly in the deep passing game. A week later, against former Irish quarterback Phil Jurkovec, the Irish secondary again seemed vulnerable to some big plays against Boston College, giving up 31 points in their victory. It seemed Irish cornerbacks were being burned frequently, oftentimes on relatively straightforward post routes. Heading into the game against No. 19 North Carolina, the Irish were in danger of surrendering 30+ straight points in three straight games for the first time since their 4-8 season in 2016.
Frankly, the likelihood of that happening seemed somewhat probable. UNC was averaging a whisper under 44 points a game, and they offered up one of the best running back tandems in the country in senior Michael Carter and junior Javonte Williams, both averaging over seven yards per carry and a hundred yards per game. Williams led the FBS with 18 touchdowns, and he figured to push Notre Dame’s stout front to the limit.
“We knew they were an elite offense … scoring all over a bunch of teams,” Irish senior linebacker Drew White said.
As UNC needed just 14 plays to march 125 yards in their first two drives, both ending in touchdowns, it seemed the Tar Heels would indeed be a lethal offense to contend with on Black Friday. They ran the ball eight times, notching 48 yards in those first two drives.
“We did not come out the way we wanted, but that motivated our group to come into the game and reinforce that we believe we are the best defense in the country,” White said.
Notre Dame’s defense began to improve, and the Irish offense matched UNC with two touchdown drives of their own, keeping the score 14-14. However, in a drive late in the second quarter, sophomore safety Kyle Hamilton — who Coach Brian Kelly described as their “bellwether” player — was ejected on a clear-cut targeting call. At the same time, sixth-year safety Shawn Crawford was nursing a minor injury on the sidelines, and Irish fans had to be worried.
Safety play had bailed out the secondary, and now suddenly they were down both starters.
Junior cornerback TaRiq Bracy had also been pulled from the game after being burned on multiple occasions, getting replaced by first-year Clarence Lewis. With an All-American safety in the locker room, one starter playing banged up and a true freshman manning one of the cornerback positions, Notre Dame was in need of their defensive line and linebackers to step up.
Although Notre Dame held UNC to a field goal on that particular drive and then moved down the field to knot the score with a Jonathan Doerer kick, the 17-17 score at halftime was cause for anxiety.
“We got the message across that we need to step up — this isn’t our standard,” White said. “We came out in the second half guns blazing”.
If that was the message, it certainly got across. UNC gained 10 yards on their first play from scrimmage in the second half, but on the ensuing first down, Carter was stuffed for a 3-yard loss, setting the Tar Heels behind the chains, as Notre Dame forced the punt. The Irish would engineer a 97-yard scoring drive to give themselves a 24-17 lead, and for the first time all day, the Notre Dame defense was protecting a lead.
The defensive juice was flowing on UNC’s next possessions, as Howell and Co. ground out five yards and punted, with reserve senior safety Houston Griffith stepping in for Hamilton and providing excellent support in the secondary, while Lewis locked down UNC’s talented receivers. Junior defensive lineman Justin Ademiloa got home for a first-down sack, and the Irish would get the ball back.
The depth of the Notre Dame defense, particularly with reserve Ademiloa punishing Howell for a sack, was noticeable as the second half wore on. Buck linebacker Marist Liufau made his presence known as he had five tackles and 0.5 sacks. White matched those stats to go along with two tackles for loss. And while the secondary provided stability, the stout defensive effort started up front.
Even when not hitting Howell, Irish linebackers and linemen were getting hands on passes, as both White and grad student defensive lineman Daelin Hayes deflected passes at the line of scrimmage in the second half. Senior defensive lineman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa had a thundering QB hit that forced Howell to float a critical third-down screen pass beyond the arms of his target.
“That’s just how the defensive unit is — it’s more than just 11 guys. Locked in during meetings, in practice,” White said. “When one guy goes down, all 10 other guys have the utmost respect and trust in the guy filling in.”
The collective team effort at the line of scrimmage was displayed well in one particular sequence. Still down just 24-17, UNC was beginning to gather some momentum, driving into Notre Dame territory for the first time in the half. Howell completed three straight passes before throwing incomplete on first down at the Notre Dame 41. On second down, Howell escaped the pocket and looked primed to take off, before White flew in with a thundering hit, sticking the sophomore quarterback at the line of scrimmage. On the ensuing third down, Howell again escaped the pocket but ran into Tagovailoa-Amosa, was forced to backpedal, and was driven backwards for the sack by Liufau and freshman defensive lineman Rylie Mills. The Tar Heels punted, and Notre Dame drove 89 yards for the game-clinching touchdown.
All told, UNC gained just 78 yards in the second half, for a season-low total of 298 yards. They didn’t get inside the Notre Dame 40 in the final two quarters, and they ended up notching just 87 rushing yards on the day — 39 of which came after the first two drives. Javonte Williams was held to 28 yards on 11 carries. Up and down the defense, depth played big roles, while the stars at the line of scrimmage stepped up for the Irish as well.
Senior rover Jeremiah Owusa-Koramoah didn’t make any groundbreaking plays, but he led a steady effort with nine tackles. The Irish notched six sacks as a team, consistently pushing the Tar Heels behind the chains. With thundering hits, stuffed runs and deflected passes, the Irish linebackers and defensive linemen set a tone for a second half and reminded everyone what this Irish defense is about. From play to play, and series to series, the Irish intensity remained unrivaled. They didn’t rest after one big play, and they didn’t fold after a successful play from the UNC offense, however rare that was in the second half.
“We as a defensive unit see momentum as a myth,” White said. “We make corrections, and our focus is onto the next drive. After the corrections, I’m not thinking about the play I made or missed. That’s out of my memory and I’m moving on to the next series.”
Maybe the Irish don’t believe in momentum, but don’t ask the UNC offense to confirm that statement. There was too much blue and gold in their backfield to even think about generating their own momentum.