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Coolican: Win over UNC must serve as turning point for Irish offense

Before kick-off Saturday in Chapel Hill, I noted that if Drew Pyne and the Irish offense were unable to get it going against the North Carolina defense, I wasn’t sure they would be able to do so against anybody. The Tar Heels came into the contest allowing opponents an average of 468 yards per game, so it was the perfect opportunity for the Irish to turn things around offensively.

Drew Pyne & Co. did that, and then some. After two unsuccessful drives, the Irish offense was absolutely dominant for the remainder of the game. The Irish rattled off six consecutive scoring drives and only punted once. It was an offensive masterclass in every facet of the game. The Irish rushed for 287 yards and passed for 289. 

North Carolina does have one of the worst defenses in college football, and that was on full display Saturday afternoon. But that shouldn’t take away from what the Irish were able to do offensively. 

“It’s what you hope Notre Dame football is going to be about,” head coach Marcus Freeman said after the game. “That you’re going to have an O-line that can run the ball…to be able to run the ball at will for four or five yards, that’s something that you have to be able to do.”

Notre Dame certainly showed what they are about on Saturday. The talented trio of running backs, junior Chris Tyree and sophomores Audric Estime and Logan Diggs, each had more than 100 total yards. 

After a shaky first drive, junior quarterback Drew Pyne looked increasingly confident as the game progressed. He played largely mistake-free football and consistently found open receivers downfield. Establishing the run early allowed for the offense to open up a vertical dimension that the Irish hadn’t shown previously. 

The play calling has been much maligned to start the season, and until Saturday, it appeared Notre Dame would be extremely limited offensively with Pyne under center. 

“I try to tell the team all the time. When things go bad, it’s bad play-calling. When things go well, it’s great play-calling. That’s the reality of things,” Freeman said. “I believe in the game Tommy Rees has called from Ohio State to Marshall to Cal to now. We were able to execute better.”

Pyne agreed with this confidence and sang the offensive coordinator’s praises in the post-game press conference.

“I think Coach Rees called an unbelievable game. He puts me in a position to go out there and just succeed and do my job and execute,” Pyne said. “I can’t tell you how many times I ran over to the phone and said, ‘Coach Rees, that was all you.’” 

All of this is well and good, but only if this game serves as a turning point for the Irish offense. Notre Dame must be able to build on this momentum as they approach the midway point of the season, with many of their toughest opponents still to come. 

The game was clearly an inflection point for Notre Dame; either they would drop to 1-3 and begin to cast doubts about whether the team would even be bowl eligible, or they would win their second game in a row heading into a bye week and the upcoming showdown with BYU. 

The Irish went out there and responded to this pressure in a big way. When this season is over, however, the win over UNC won’t be the first game that comes to mind. It will be the battles with BYU, Clemson, USC, and, unfortunately, the upset loss to Marshall. The Irish have to carry this momentum forward into these big showdowns.

Notre Dame is clearly getting better each week, but that will have to continue. What was most impressive about the win Saturday wasn’t the play-calling, the performance of the running backs or the offensive line, or Pyne’s play. It was the consistency. 

North Carolina quickly took a 7-0 lead on their first possession and then forced a three-and-out. Based on the first three weeks of the season, one might have expected the Irish offense to be completely demoralized, but instead, they bounced right back and put themselves in scoring position for every single drive for the rest of the game. 

A missed 44-yard field goal on their second drive of the game preceded six consecutive scoring drives, five of which were touchdowns. The Irish failed to convert on a 4th and 1 from the UNC 25 before another touchdown, and finally a fumble into the endzone. For those keeping track, that is 10 consecutive drives that finished inside the UNC 26 yard line. The Irish were moving the ball at will down the field practically all game. 

Notre Dame will certainly hope this game serves as a turning point for an offense that was at times painful to watch through the first three games of the season. North Carolina didn’t offer much in the way of resistance, but it was undoubtedly the best the Irish have looked all season. However, they’ll still need to prove it against better defensive opponents, and BYU is the perfect place to do so. 

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