“We knew that their game plan doesn’t really change,” linebacker Cole Holcomb said of Notre Dame using Book.
And yet, that game plan was tough to stop, although the day started off well enough for the Tar Heels. Notre Dame’s first three drives resulted in two punts and a turnover on downs. And even though the Fighting Irish’s fourth possession – a methodical 80-yard trot down the field that took 15 plays – resulted in a touchdown, UNC had avoided any catastrophic big plays, a common ailment for defensive coordinator John Papuchis’ group this season.
That soon changed.
With his team already leading by a touchdown, Notre Dame running back Josh Adams ran horizontally to the left before following his blocks and cutting up field. Once he fought through an arm tackle, he was off to the races. Seventy-three yards and a touchdown later, Notre Dame’s big-play success via the run game had started.
“That was the one play that I felt like defensively we gave up in the first half,” head coach Larry Fedora said.
Prior to that point, Notre Dame’s star running back had amassed just 33 rushing yards on nine carries.
Dorn’s showing put a bow on UNC’s defensive start. On his first interception, the safety played the role of centerfielder, sprinting toward the sideline to snatch a deep ball that Book unleashed on a play-action pass. That pick led to UNC’s lone touchdown of the day, as the Tar Heels cut Notre Dame’s lead to 14-7 with a Chazz Surratt 25-yard pass to Anthony Ratliff-Williams.
“I’ve been waiting on it for five games now, so it feels good to have it come today,” Dorn said of the interceptions.
If not for UNC’s safety right before the break, a self-inflicted error that zapped the energy out of Kenan Memorial Stadium, the Tar Heels would’ve gone into the half down by just a touchdown on the strength of its defense, on a day where its offensive counterparts started off with five consecutive three-and-outs.
However, that success wouldn’t continue as the game went on.
Fully committed to the ground game, Notre Dame ran over UNC. The Fighting Irish passed just six times in the final two quarters – Book had only 146 passing yards on the day – and another running back, Deon McIntosh, got in on the fun, too.
After not touching the ball once in the first half, McIntosh finished with 124 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. Both of his scores were of the big-play variety – the “explosives” UNC has tried so hard to stop. In total, Notre Dame as a team had eight runs of 10-plus yards, and four that went for at least 17.
“For us, it’s just being consistent throughout the whole game,” Dorn said. “Because we’ll be playing good, but it’s six plays that’ll lose us the game."
On the whole, Dorn thought UNC did a good job against the run, with the obvious exception being the handful of plays the Fighting Irish broke for huge gains. Defensive end Dajaun Drennon echoed that sentiment.
“It may look like we didn’t do a good job, but one play went for, what, (seventy-three yards)?” he said. “So if you take that away, then we’re pretty good defensively.”
Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, those plays can’t just be taken away. They count, and they’ve been the bugaboo for UNC.
On Adams’ big run, defensive end Tomon Fox had a chance to bring him down, but couldn’t. When McIntosh went 35 yards for his first score, safety Donnie Miles – who later left the game with an injury – was in position to make a tackle, but ultimately didn’t.
“We didn’t make ordinary plays that we make every day, and that’s just what we’ve got to start doing,” Holcomb said.
This season, making the ordinary play has been anything but ordinary for UNC.