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Irish keys to victory versus North Carolina

After earning their first victory of the year, Notre Dame heads to North Carolina, eyeing a return to a .500 record. They face a tall task, entering the game as slight underdogs to the unbeaten Tar Heels. The story of this game is two programs with completely opposite strengths. Notre Dame ranks 115th out of 131 in scoring offense, but their defense has been solid, allowing seven total touchdowns in three games. That included a battle with the vaunted Ohio State offense. UNC is averaging over 51 points a game, but they’re giving up over 37 per contest. They haven’t faced a Power-5 program yet, so the offense will face their most difficult test of the young 2022 season. Notre Dame’s offense is certainly struggling, but UNC’s defense is truly an eyesore through three weeks. To truly measure the stark difference: the Irish offense has scored seven touchdowns this season…the UNC defense gave up six touchdowns in the fourth quarter of their season opener. So there is a path to victory for Notre Dame, but what are the keys to obtaining the slight upset win? 

Key 1: Minimize Drake Maye as a runner

Drake Maye is going to be solid. He’s a really strong quarterback and will make some plays. But Notre Dame let Cal stick around last week via Jack Plummer escaping a collapsed pocket and ripping off a bevy of first-down runs. Against a far better runner, that cannot happen with the Tar Heels. 

This responsibility largely falls to the Irish linebackers, who struggled against the Golden Bears. They need a quarterback spy on Maye to make him uncomfortable outside the pocket. This will be difficult without senior captain J.D. Bertrand playing the first half (the tail-end of his targeting punishment from last week), but the Irish have the depth to fill his role for 30 minutes. Additionally, the Irish defensive line must finish their job. While they terrorized Plummer with six sacks and 27 quarterback pressures last week, Notre Dame whiffed on several sacks, allowing the Cal signal-caller to escape. That can’t happen this week. 

Key 2: Beat the UNC secondary at the line of scrimmage

This is huge for Notre Dame, and it corresponds to a general strength for the Irish. UNC generally features a heavy dose of press coverage, and that makes beating your man at the line of scrimmage absolutely pivotal. The Irish have a tight end in junior Michael Mayer who can beat anyone at the line of scrimmage. Sophomore wide receiver Lorenzo Styles showed against Marshall and at times against Cal, he can beat his defender off the line and get open quickly. 

If they can win quickly against the cornerbacks, the Irish may be able to open up the vertical component of their offense that has been so sorely lacking. This is a big test for these Irish receivers. They have struggled so far this year, and their offense has moved lethargically at times. This is a unit they can expose, and if they can’t, it speaks to far bigger issues for this Irish offense moving into the middle third of the season. 

Key 3: Contain Josh Downs

The key word here is ‘contain’. Notre Dame, in all likelihood, will not stop UNC’s dynamic receiver. Injuries have limited Downs to one game this year. But he was a difference-maker in that contest, notching nine catches for 87 yards and two touchdowns. The Irish would likely be ok with more yards from Downs but less scoring impact. Last year, Downs caught 10 passes for 142 yards against Notre Dame; but he didn’t score. For Notre Dame, that’s successful containment. They made the Tar Heels find secondary methods of scoring, and that’ll be key again on Saturday. 

Ultimately, this is going to be a major test for the Irish. The defense faces a loaded offensive unit. On offense, Notre Dame was at full panic mode through the first half of the Cal game. After scoring 17 points in a three-drive span in the second half against a solid Cal defense, that panic subsided a little bit. Now, against a weaker defensive unit, the goal should be 30+ for the Irish, a number they’ll likely need to hit in order to win this road battle, and for head coach Marcus Freeman to snag win No. 2 of his career.

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Observer Staff predicts Notre Dame-UNC

After picking up his first career win as head coach in Week 3, can Marcus Freeman make it two straight this weekend in North Carolina? The Observer staff is split on the pick.

Sports Editor Aidan Thomas

I’ve tossed and turned about this pick all week. Not literally, but I truly have no idea what to expect. To put it slightly dramatically, the very moveable object (UNC’s defense) meets a nearly non-startable force (Notre Dame’s offense) in this matchup.

Here’s what makes the difference for me. Going back to the opener, Notre Dame shut down a vaunted Ohio State attack. They’ve given up 21, 19 and 17 points in three weeks. More notably, nobody has really beaten the Irish through the air, which is where UNC wants to operate. Their ground game is efficient, but it’s not their bread and butter. The biggest thing for the Irish is containing Drake Maye, who is a solid dual-threat quarterback. Notre Dame linebacker must be better, but that unit is operating without senior linebacker J.D. Bertrand for the first half which makes this task even more difficult. I think Notre Dame trails at the half — again — but starts figuring out how to target the Tar Heels in the second half. They’ll pull off the mild upset over the Tar Heels. 

Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 27

Senior sports writer Nate Moller

The Irish defense will have to be on top of their game this weekend against a balanced UNC offense that has thrown for 930 yards through the air and 712 yards on the ground. The Tar Heels have plenty of options through the air, as they have six players with over 100 receiving yards this season. The Irish, by comparison, have just two players with over 100 receiving yards this season. The Irish have still yet to force a turnover this season, and winning that battle this weekend might be a key to victory. Despite UNC’s subpar defense, the Irish offense will have a difficult time keeping up with UNC quarterback Drake Maye’s offensive production. Unless junior quarterback Drew Pyne can up his level of play this weekend significantly, a loss to a highly productive UNC offense seems inevitable.

North Carolina 38, Notre Dame 27

Associate Sports Editor Liam Coolican

If there’s an opportunity for Pyne and the Notre Dame offense to get rolling, it’s this weekend in Chapel Hill. Only one power-five team (Colorado) ranks lower than UNC in terms of scoring defense. The Tar Heels are allowing opponents to score nearly 38 points per game. Conversely, they are 6th in the nation in scoring offense, averaging more than 51 points per game. It’s a testament to the strength of this offense that the Tar Heels are 3-0. The Irish will have to work hard to slow down Maye and his impressive cadre of receivers. 

A lot of this game will depend on the Notre Dame defense, because no matter how ineffective the UNC defense is, I am not willing (yet) to put my faith in Pyne in a shootout. One major concern is the inconsistency of Al Golden’s unit. They’ve played well this year, but have had stretches of poor play. In order to win this contest, they’ll have to be at their best for all four quarters, and that’s not something I’ve seen from them so far this year.

North Carolina 31, Notre Dame 28

Assistant Managing Editor Mannion McGinley

So Irish fans saw two almost takeaways this weekend against Cal. That was good. That was new this season. Did they end up counting? No, but we found other defensive success on both plays. Should that mean an interception or a strip is on the way? One would hope. Will I predict that the Irish get one this weekend? No. No, I will not. The last time I did that, the Irish lost (despite my predicting a 35-point win).

Do the Irish need to force a turnover to win this weekend? Yes, that much is clear. Pyne will be able to lead the offense just well enough to beat the UNC defense and keep pace with the UNC offense in terms of productive drives. Until he proves he can do more, he has proven that we can expect at least that much from him, and I believe in it.

It’s the defense that ends up controlling this game though. The defensive line especially needs to be able to get to Maye the way they’ve gotten to Plummer. I expect to see both Ademilola brothers bursting through that line, and I want to see the 2021 version of senior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey right beside them. The new guys are still getting caught up, but even they are holding their own. The returners need to show them how it’s done to push Notre Dame over the top this weekend. There needs to be an even cleaner fourth-quarter stop in this game than the bouncing Hail Mary from the Cal game. Another tight one for sure.

Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 28

Associate Sports Editor Madeline Ladd

After a nail-biter of a win last week against Cal, the Irish need to capture a solid victory against the Tar Heels this weekend. Though they infamously struggle to run the ball, Notre Dame’s passing game was more accurate last week with Pyne. He grew more comfortable in the second half and has the ability to connect with receivers. There’s too much talent up front for the offense not to be better. Tyree and Estime will certainly be able to pound the awful UNC defense, as they are ranked 123rd in the nation.

Nevertheless, Tar Heel freshman quarterback Drake Maye has the potential to challenge the secondary and will most likely connect with returning wide out star Josh Downs. This will prove a fight, but finally the ND defense will get turnovers and hold off their opponent. Turnovers are the name of the game here, and if the Irish can do that they can continue their 10+ year win streak against the Tar Heels. I see it happening.

Notre Dame 37, North Carolina 28

Emily DeFazio, Associate Sports Editor

This is the make-or-break game for the 2022 Irish season. Notre Dame won the Cal game, but that does not mean it is smooth sailing the rest of the way. In the final five minutes, there were at least three instances where that game was nearly tied. And one of those moments came on the final play of the game. Pyne needs to have gotten his sea legs and move forward with a solid foundation and settle into his role as QB1. The Irish cannot afford turnovers and over-throwing receivers in Chapel Hill. The Irish defense will need to remain on-point this week to allow the offense some growing pains. But I expect a fourth-quarter solidifying of a narrow Irish win.

Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 27

Maggie Klaers | The Observer
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Key moments from Notre Dame’s first win in the Freeman era

Slow start for both teams

The game started slowly with seven consecutive three-and-out possessions for the Notre Dame and Cal offenses. For the Irish, this meant 10 total yards in their opening four possessions. For the Golden Bears, it was 14 yards through their first three.

On their fourth possession, Cal was finally able to get something going. They put together an 11-play, 58-yard drive punctuated by a 17-yard throw and catch to convert on third down. However, they stalled at the 27-yard line and sent out the field goal unit. Cal kicker Dario Longhetto promptly doinked the 45-yard attempt off the left upright and the game remained tied at zero.

Pyne fumbles, Cal takes advantage

After escaping unscathed following Cal’s missed field goal, Notre Dame took over at their own 27, still without a first down. Pyne connected with Lorenzo Styles Jr. to open the drive and the first quarter came to an end.

But on the first play of the second quarter, Pyne couldn’t get a handle on Zeke Correll’s snap and fumbled it, with Cal linebacker Oluwafemi Oladejo recovering. The turnover gave Cal excellent field position and, four plays later, they scored the game’s opening touchdown and took a 7-0 lead.

Notre Dame replies as Chris Tyree takes over

With 16 total yards, zero first downs and a seven-point deficit to make up, Notre Dame turned to junior running back Chris Tyree, and he answered the bell. Notre Dame put together a 10-play, 60-yard touchdown drive where Tyree accounted for 44 of the team’s 60 yards, plus a 16-yard kickoff return before the drive began.

This included the 21-yard touchdown reception where Tyree got open out of the backfield and scored untouched. The score came after Notre Dame was bailed out by an offside penalty on Blake Grupe’s missed 45-yard field goal attempt.

The Golden Bears offense were able to move the ball well again before stalling on third and goal, where an excellent open-field tackle from DJ Brown kept Cal out of the end zone. Regardless, a 34-yard field goal made it 10-7 before the half.

Estime scores, Plummer matches him

Notre Dame’s defense forced a quick three and out to start the third quarter, and Pyne and the offense got back to work.

This time, it was Audric Estime who handled the ball often and a 14-yard carry quickly got the offense into Cal territory. They stalled at the 28, though, where a Drew Pyne incompletion seemed to force a field goal attempt. However, the flags came flying, and Cal linebacker Blake Antzoulatos was called for targeting and ejected from the game. The call gave the Irish 15 yards and a first down.

From there, Estime carried the ball four straight times until he dove over the goal line to give Notre Dame a 14-10 lead.

Cal replied with a 10-play, 75-yard drive to retake the lead. The Irish seemed to have got the stop on third and goal but with the ball inches short, Cal went for it, and Jack Plummer was able to score on the QB sneak and make it 17-14.

Notre Dame ties it then takes the lead in fourth quarter

On the following drive, the Notre Dame offense got going again. It included a big 19-yard completion from Pyne to Styles for a first down. However, after a few touches for Tyree and an incompletion, the drive stalled. Grupe came out and nailed a 47-yard field goal to tie the game.

The defense then came up huge with Jacob Lacey sacking Plummer for the second time in the game. That play led to another three-and-out for the Golden Bears who punted it back to Notre Dame.

Back on the field, the Notre Dame offense kept their momentum and scored for a third consecutive drive. This time it was set up by a 36-yard completion to Estime, who got inside the 10 on the play. From there, Pyne found Michael Mayer on the slant route to give Notre Dame the 24-17 lead.

 Defense steps up late

With a one-score lead, the onus now fell on the Irish defense to step up late in the game. Fourth quarter execution had been an issue for the Notre Dame defense in the first two games, but you wouldn’t know it watching them on Saturday.

With the ball back in Plummer’s hands, Notre Dame needed a stop to take control in the contest, and that’s exactly what they got. After giving up a conversion on fourth and eight that made Irish fans think “here we go again,” the defense were able to force a turnover on downs. After three consecutive incompletions, Isaiah Foskey got home and sacked Plummer for a loss of eight yards and a turnover on downs. 

After a short Irish possession, a Jon Sot punt pinned the Golden Bears inside the 10 and it was the same story as the previous drive: two Plummer incompletions before he was sacked. This time it was Jayson Ademilola and Foskey who combined to force the punt from Cal. 

After a little clock management from the offense and a Sot touchback, it was all on the defense once again. This time, it seemed it might only take one play. Plummer dropped back to pass and threw the ball straight at Clarence Lewis, who intercepted to seemingly seal the win. However, under further review, the interception was overturned, and Notre Dame captain linebacker JD Bertrand was ejected for targeting. The penalty means that Bertrand will miss the next game against North Carolina. 

It also meant that Cal’s drive was alive. After some progress down the field, it seemed once again that the Irish might’ve sealed it with a turnover. This time, Justin Ademilola got some pressure on Plummer, who fumbled the ball. Ta’riq Bracy recovered and scored on the play, sending Notre Dame Stadium into delirium. 

Once again, the turnover was negated upon further review. This time, the referees ruled that Plummer was down by contact, meaning the play resulted in a six-yard sack for Justin Ademilola instead. With one final play, Plummer threw a hail mary to the goal line, which was juggled between several players until it hit the turf. Finally, the Irish could celebrate. 

FINAL SCORE: Notre Dame 24, California 17

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Golden, Rees coordinate plan for major changes 

After a devastating defeat against unranked Marshall, the Irish are looking to regroup and revitalize this weekend at home against Cal. The loss of sophomore starting quarterback Tyler Buchner due to injury threw an even bigger wrench for the Irish. Both the defense and offense came out flat in last week’s game. And there is a dire need for improvement on both sides of the ball. 

Offensive coordinator Tommy Rees and defensive coordinator Al Golden shared similar sentiments about their mindsets and where they hope to go. Taking accountability and standing behind Marcus Freeman and the team, both coaches are determined to fix the mistakes of the last two weeks.

‘It all starts with me’

The Notre Dame offense has consistently fallen short this season. Shortcomings and red flags seen during the Ohio State game were only exemplified in the disappointing performance against Marshall. Buchner’s inaccuracy on deep passes coupled with the lack of holes created by the offensive line made it difficult for the Irish to move the chains. With Buchner out, however, junior quarterback Drew Pyne could be the switch the Irish need. Experienced and ready to assume Buchner’s role as starting quarterback, Pyne brings a different perspective to the table.

“Drew’s care factor is about as high as anyone you can be around,” Rees said. “I told Drew, we are in a tough spot right now and we need you here. Drew knows the playbook and has respect for his teammates. He’s prepared himself for this for a long time.”

Though this new change will certainly shake things up on offense, Rees foresees it as a way to pivot and create enhanced offensive play. 

“There’s certainly things that Tyler does at a high level that we’ll adjust to or pivot from,” Rees said. “We have a lot of faith and trust in Drew, and we are building that in Steve Angeli right now. Our job is to make sure these two guys are ready to go and play in a football game.”

Rees recognizes that the success of the offense stems from him, and he takes ownership of the team’s performance. Rees’ play calling has been largely conservative, so it will be interesting to see what he does this weekend.

“It all starts with me,” Rees said. “I have to be better, I have to do more to make sure everybody knows what is expected and what needs to be done. We are extremely driven to make sure that we will fix what we need to.”

Rees “believe[s] there can be expansion in the playbook” and must put players in a place that is advantageous to the offense. Running back Chris Tyree, said to be a key asset for the Notre Dame offense this year, has seen little action on the field. 

“We have to continue to find ways to get the guys who will make our offense more explosive and get more touches,” Rees said. “Tyree certainly falls under that category.” 

Despite all the negatives on the offense, there were some good moments. Rees emphasized the importance of recognizing these positives to stay motivated and replicate them while replacing the negatives. 

“There are positives and you gotta find them,” Rees said. “We need to make sure that everyone is doing their job and improving.”

‘We have to do a better job tackling, number one’

The Irish expected their defense to be a huge strength. But so far, their performance has been less than stellar. Missed tackles. No turnovers. Collapsing at the end of long drives at the end of the game. All of these problems have plagued the Irish defense. Though they were able to keep the points down, the defense needs to step up. Golden recognizes this, feeling “disappointed by not discouraged” by the early results, getting straight to the point.

“We have to do a better job tackling, number one,” Golden said. “And our fourth quarter execution has to improve. That’s on me, I have to do a better job putting them in a position to execute in the fourth quarter, and we have to do a better job tackling as a unit in general.”

Golden’s ownership of the team’s shortcomings is similar to that of Rees, highlighting the accountability of both coordinators.

“We can mix it up and do a better job,” Golden said “We’ve limited explosives and have kept the points down. But what we haven’t done is turn the field on a takeaway. So takeaways, more hits and sacks on the quarterbacks are things we can do a better job of.”

These elements, especially an increasing emphasis on tackling, could make all the difference for the Irish defense. However, despite the chaos, Golden recognized the three defensive captains as providing a constant for the Irish defense the past two weeks.

“(Isaiah) Foskey has shown leadership and a late in-game energy. We have to keep finding the matchup for him and help him get pressure on the quarterback,” Golden said. “JD Bertrand’s been very good in terms of setting the front and communication. Bo Bauer’s obviously doing a great job on special teams. Very pleased with all three of these guys but at the same time disappointed, because they’ve worked very hard and aren’t getting the results that they deserve. They gotta keep fighting and good things will happen.”

Preparing for Saturday

Golden, Rees, and the rest of the coaching staff are looking at everything from “the top down.” Though the Irish have not started strong, there is no denying they are trying hard to turn things around. Not taking things for granted and recognizing the importance of each play, Rees says, is the name of the game this weekend.

“Anytime you play this game the margins between wins and losses are very small,” Rees said. “You can have a number of losses that get masked because you won the game. We must not take things for granted. Play in and play out, it matters how everyone does their job.”

Contact Maddie Ladd at mladd2@nd.edu