When the season started in September, North Carolina’s visit to Notre Dame was looked at as a potential big game.
That still holds true, but just for one team. While the No. 11 Fighting Irish have held up their end of the bargain, going 6-1, the Tar Heels started the season as a Top 10 team but quickly identified themselves as a pretender instead of a contender.
At 4-3 with losses to three sub-.500 teams in Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech and Florida State, North Carolina qualifies under any objective measure as one of the nation’s biggest disappointments.
After a 45-42 win in the Tar Heels’ last game, Oct. 16 against Miami, North Carolina coach Mack Brown was reduced to praising his squad for merely winning — period.
“One thing this team hasn’t done this year is win a tough game at the end,” he said.
That’s something Notre Dame has done more than once. Last week’s 31-16 home victory over Southern California sort of qualifies in that department, if only because the Irish nearly frittered away a 24-3 fourth-quarter lead before backup quarterback Tyler Buchner sealed the outcome with a 3-yard touchdown run in the last five minutes.
Notre Dame is 3-0 in games decided by three points (Florida State, Toledo, Virginia Tech) and trailed 13-10 in the fourth quarter before using three non-offensive touchdowns to blow out Wisconsin 41-13.
It’s not always been pretty for the Irish, but except for a 24-13 home loss to now-second-ranked Cincinnati, they’ve found a way to win games.
“They have a skill of focus and that skill is one where they have confidence,” Kelly said of his players. “They understand what’s important at the time. They’ve lacked some concentration at times, and we’ve seen that in some spotty play, but they’re working on that and they’re getting better at it. So, when you have the skill of focus and are able to kind of really lock into the moment, it’s allowed them to excel in pressure moments, because adversity does not affect them.”
While the Irish were outgained 424-383 against the Trojans, they also played an efficient, clean game. They were flagged for just four penalties and committed up only one turnover while giving up just one sack.
Quarterback Jack Coan hit on 20 of 28 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown, taking advantage of an up-tempo attack that appeared to catch USC off-guard.
“Certainly they weren’t expecting Hurry-Up Jack to be up there,” Kelly said of his team’s change in tactics. “He’s been less than that all year. It was still about matching personnel for them. It was certainly something they weren’t prepared for.”
North Carolina will have to be ready for multiple quarterbacks. Buchner and Drew Pyne have also taken critical snaps for Notre Dame as Kelly has played situational football to the hilt. Buchner led the clinching touchdown drive last week, and Pyne starred in a relief role during the win over Wisconsin.
The Tar Heels have no such rotation under center. Sam Howell is their man, and even though North Carolina’s record isn’t what many thought it would be, Howell has thrown for 1,851 yards with 18 touchdowns and six interceptions while running for another 494 yards and five scores.
Josh Downs has been the top target, catching 60 passes for 837 yards and eight touchdowns. However, the Tar Heels’ defense has been poor lately, giving up at least 35 points in four of the past five games.
The Irish have dominated the all-time series, winning 19 of the 21 meetings, and one of the Tar Heels’ victories (from 2008) was vacated. Notre Dame beat North Carolina 31-17 last November in Chapel Hill.
–Field Level Media