Notre Dame emerged victorious against the UNC Tar Heels, notching 45 points in their highest scoring match of the season thus far. This puts the Irish at 2-2 ahead of their bye week.
This is the second win for head coach Marcus Freeman, making him 2-3 in his tenure at Notre Dame. Following the game in Chapel Hill, Freeman remarked that he was proud of his team, while simultaneously acknowledging their room for growth.
“We played really well,” he said. “And the beauty of it is there’s always room to get better. We can go and we can learn from a lot of situations that happen in the game.”
Some of these situations happened early on for the team. The Irish finally won a coin toss, electing to defer and receive at the start of the second half. This put the Notre Dame defense on the field to start. However, despite their previous showings this season, their initial performance was not what was expected of the usually-solid unit. The Tar Heels plowed through the line, ending the drive in a 12 play, 76 yard touchdown. Freeman said that he told his defense to be more aggressive on the field after understanding UNC quarterback Drake Maye could run.
“You have to be aggressive, but understand you have to stay in your rush lanes and it was good to see the adjustment from our defensive line,” he said. “Like I said on the sidelines to them, ‘I don’t want you to play cautious, but I want you to be aware that we can’t just rush past the quarterback because he’ll step up and he’ll run,’ and so it was good to see that.”
When the offense took over, a similar shutdown occurred. Two of junior quarterback Drew Pyne’s passes were batted down, effectively stunting the drive in a minute of play. The Irish were forced to punt after only gaining eight yards on the drive, and were again unable to score on their next offensive drive. Junior quarterback Drew Pyne’s potential touchdown pass to sophomore wide receiver Jayden Thomas rendered itself incomplete, and graduate student kicker Blake Grupe’s field goal attempt went south to keep the score 7-0 UNC.
However, this was the last true dry spell the Irish would have all night. At the start of the second quarter, continuing from their final drive of the first, the Irish began with a first down. Pyne launched the ball to a wide-open Logan Diggs for a 34 yard play after a fake out from junior running back Chris Tyree drew some of the Tar Heels’ defense. Tyree followed up with nine, five and 10 yard gains to put the Irish in a first and goal situation. After the snap, it seemed everyone was covered until junior tight end Michael Mayer flew into the middle for an open pass from Pyne, which he carried into the end zone. The kick from graduate student Blake Grupe was good, tying the game and turning the tides of the matchup.
Freeman spoke on the importance of getting Mayer more involved in their offensive game plan. The All-American tight end recorded 88 receiving yards on the night, accounting for 30% of the total receiving yards. This comes after only receiving for 10 yards against Cal the week before.
“You’re a fool if you can’t find a way to get the ball in his hands,” Freeman said.
After Mayer’s touchdown, each consecutive drive for the Irish was a scoring one. The defense promptly forced the Tar Heels to punt on the following drive, and when the Irish took the field again, another touchdown was quick to follow. Pyne passed to Mayer in jet-sweep fashion, ending in a gain of seven yards as the tight end shoved his way forward. Freeman said that that method of passing is not one you would usually expect to see Mayer involved in, but that it is a testament to how many different options he can perform on the field.
Following this, sophomore running back Audric Estime clocked a 29 yard rush, putting Pyne in position to make a 30 yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Lorenzo Styles, Jr. A rushing the passer penalty was additionally called on UNC, and was enforced on the following drive.
On the next Irish offensive showing, after UNC made a successful touchdown drive, the Irish capitalized on their third touchdown drive. Tyree found a hole in the defense to rush for a 19 yard gain, with Diggs following it up with a gain of 17. On Pyne’s next pass to Mayer, the tight end continued to plow forward with three defenders on him to put the Irish firmly in the red zone. The attempt ended with Estime falling forward one yard for the touchdown. To end the half, the Irish made a field goal attempt after being shut down, putting them ahead 31-14.
The Irish continued their hot streak on the first drive of the second half. Pyne found a wide open Diggs near the sideline, and the running back walked the ball into the endzone to make it 31-14, Notre Dame.
The defense quickly shut down the Tar Heels’ response as Justin Ademilola recovered a Tar Heels fumble. Freeman noted his pride in how the defense played, given the caliber of the Tar Heels offense.
“It was a challenge to our defense to stop the run,” Freeman said. “I think the lowest amount [UNC] had offensively in the first three games is 183 rushing yards, and to hold that offense 66 rushing yards is a great accomplishment by our defense.”
Pyne then hit up Styles for an 11 yard gain to put them in the red zone. His following pass to Mayer was ruled incomplete as the tight end received the ball in the endzone, but the play went under further review. Despite the fact that Mayer had his foot down, his heel was over the line, and the ruling on the field stood.
The Irish took a time out when they were 4th and 2, attempting to psych out the Tar Heels by having both the offensive and kicking units out on the field in huddles. Ultimately, the team went for it. After Pyne’s pass to Tyree was ruled incomplete, signaling the end of their scoring attempt, a pass interference call was enacted on the defense, resetting the drive to a first down. UNC head coach Mack Brown stormed onto the field to argue the ruling with the refs, only to get an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty called on him. These calls allowed Estime to soar over the huddle for a touchdown.
Notre Dame’s next drive resulted in another score for the Irish. A series of penalties were called on the UNC defense, adding to the momentum the Irish were gathering. After Estime was pushed out of bounds, unnecessary roughness allowed the Irish to move forward to first and goal at the seven yard line. On the following play, another personal foul for unnecessary roughness was called when Pyne was hit out of bounds after running the ball. This caused the Tar Heels to begin fighting among their own ranks, which was broken up by the referees and fellow teammates. Pass interference was called on Pyne’s red zone pass to Styles, Jr., which gave them the first down needed to complete their scoring attempt. Tyree rushed the final yard into the end zone and Grupe’s kick was good. These would be the final points the Irish notched.
When the defense took the field, JD Bertrand was ejected for targeting, giving the Tar Heels an opportunity for a score. Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye threw two incomplete redzone passes before Omarion Hampton rushed for the touchdown (ND 45, UNC 26). However, freshman cornerback Jaden Mickey broke the pass from Maye during their two-point conversion attempt. This is the second time the Tar Heels’ two-point conversions were thwarted by the Irish defense in the second half.
This is the second game in a row Bertrand was disqualified for targeting. Because he missed the first half of today’s game and will miss the first half against BYU, he will have missed a full game of play this season. Freeman noted that he wants to work on different ways of tackling with the defense, and specifically with Bertrand, to avoid calls like this in the future.
“As I told JD [Bertrand] on the field, it’s our job to learn from that situation,” he said. “We have to learn from it, and we have to change or you’re going to continue to get targeting calls.”
In the final scoring drive of the night, the Tar Heels gained one last touchdown. Another unsportsmanlike conduct penalty was called on wide receiver Andre Green, Jr., but because the call came after the touchdown, the loss of yardage did not count against their score.
Despite this win, Freeman noted the team must see the bigger picture of their success: progression.
“I’m really happy with where this team is progressing,” he said. “Sometimes we let the outcome kind of mask some things, right, and continue to look at ‘Is this a football team that’s getting better?’ And it is. They’re playing better. They’re practicing better. And that’s the challenge: continue to get better.”