Sophomore quarterback Sam Howell held the ball with nine minutes to go in the fourth quarter against No. 2 Notre Dame on Friday, down seven. It’s a scene that feels normal for UNC — comfortable, even, after two years with Howell behind center.
But for the No. 25 Tar Heels, Friday’s loss was anything but normal.
This seven-point deficit was different from the others Howell had faced.
It wasn’t clawed for by an unstoppable offense going on a tear down the stretch, gaining momentum in the game’s final minutes and threatening to highlight North Carolina’s name on the bottom line when the clock hit zero.
UNC struggled to get anything going offensively throughout the second half. After taking a 17-17 tie into the break, the Tar Heels rang up an abysmal 78 yards and zero points.
Howell dropped back — seven times, on this last-hope drive — and put together North Carolina’s best possession of the frame. Four straight completions, an incomplete pass, a quarterback keeper for no gain and a sack.
It might have been four down territory with the Tar Heels on their opponent’s 41-yard line, but an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty pushed it to fourth-and-27. A punt and a handful of explosive Notre Dame plays later, and the Irish found their way into the end zone.
Notre Dame 31, UNC 17.
“We just didn’t hold up offensively in the second half,” head coach Mack Brown said.
It was the first loss by more than seven points since Brown returned to Chapel Hill last fall. It was the lowest score the Tar Heels have put on the board in the same span.
It was anything but normal.
“(Notre Dame’s defense) just did a good job overall, they didn’t make any mistakes,” Howell said. “At the end of the day, we just didn’t make enough plays.”
The passing game wasn’t the only phase that struggled for the Tar Heels' offense late in the game on Friday. North Carolina’s 2020 offense — save for a 550 passing yard performance from Howell against Wake Forest two weeks ago — has largely been built from the inside out with its rushing attack.
Running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter have been an absolute force as a backfield tandem — the pair has amassed 2,307 all-purpose yards already this year. But a talented Fighting Irish front seven had experience stopping electric backs after holding Clemson running back and Heisman candidate Travis Etienne to just 28 rushing yards earlier this season.
North Carolina’s offense is great, but Notre Dame’s defensive front is just better.
“We had opportunities, we just didn’t make the most of them,” Carter said. “We were in position to make some plays and we just didn’t.”
UNC held Notre Dame scoreless in seven of 12 total possessions. It was an impressive showing for a unit that has struggled to keep opponents off the scoreboard throughout the season (see: 53 points hung by Wake Forest two weeks ago). But for a young unit with budding talents like first-years Tony Grimes and Desmond Evans, seeing major reps against a top-five opponent for the first time and the Tar Heels keeping themselves in the game despite the offense's struggles was an accomplishment in itself.
“We’re all kind of lost, we’ve said this after games before,” Brown said. “Everybody sees the obvious. The obvious is our defense played better than they have and the offense didn’t in the second half. We had us a heck of a game there starting the second half and just didn’t respond as well.”
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