For the third time this season, the bright lights of the national stage were beaming down on the North Carolina football team. For the third time this season, the Tar Heels could announce, to a huge TV audience, their arrival to college football’s championship-contending elite — or at the very least to the upper crust of the ACC. They could prove that they were more than a cute aside in the national sports conversation.
But Friday’s tilt with second-ranked Notre Dame — served up on a platter by ABC, on a Black Friday afternoon without much else going on in the world of sports — ended just the way the Tar Heels’ previous two tries, against Florida State and Virginia, did. UNC was outshone by the Irish, 31-17, providing additional evidence that Mack Brown’s team isn’t ready for college football’s biggest stages just yet.
“I think it tells us that we’re really, really, close to where we need to be,” the head coach said after the game.
For a while, it looked like the Tar Heels were there already. UNC breezed to touchdowns on its first two drives of the day, matching the haymakers of quarterback Ian Book and company to keep it a 17-17 game at the break. Despite slowing down to end the half, North Carolina looked, in short, like it belonged — like a rightful heavyweight vying for its signature win of the season.
Then came the second half, in which the Tar Heel offense was held to a paltry 78 yards. The team’s drive chart consisted of three punts — and then another punt, and then another punt after that. And then a meaningless turnover on downs to end the game. For the scattered few fans in attendance, and the cardboard cutouts of Michael Jordan, Vince Carter, et al., the energy seemed to go out of the building.
“We struggled getting anything going, really,” sophomore quarterback Sam Howell said. “We struggled to get into any sort of rhythm.”
On the day, Howell — a game removed from a 550-yard, seven-touchdown, generally eyebrow-singing performance against Wake Forest — managed just 211 yards. Michael Carter and Javonte Williams, college football’s premiere dynamic duo, combined for 85 yards on the ground. UNC’s offensive MVP was arguably punter Ben Kiernan, who averaged 50.6 yards on seven punts and booted Notre Dame out of striking distance more than once.
Still, the Irish — no strangers to the spotlight, having had every home game broadcast on NBC since the beginning of time — handled business. They put together a 13-play, 97-yard drive to take the lead, then nabbed another touchdown late to put the game on ice. Running back Kyren Williams was spectacular, with 124 yards and two scores. Book managed the game, completed a few long balls and kept drives alive with his feet when he had to.
All the while, the Tar Heels looked stagnant, perhaps not frozen by the spotlight but definitely out of their usual explosive rhythm.
“We’re a confident team, and we feel like we can play with everybody,” Carter said. “We felt like we had the talent to beat them. We just didn’t put it together for all four quarters.”
After entering the season with ACC Championship hopes, the Tar Heels are 6-3 in conference, trailing division foe Miami and well behind Clemson and Notre Dame. For players and coaches, though, there’s still plenty of reason for optimism. North Carolina hung around for a not inconsiderable chunk of the game, reminiscent of last year’s much-more-dramatic 21-20 loss to the Tigers. The UNC defense, maligned all year, fared well for most of the night.
And while the offense didn’t live up to its top billing, it’s just more proof that once all the pieces finally come together — once the lights are on, the camera crews are ready and everything finally clicks — the Tar Heels will be a dangerous, dangerous team.
“We still haven’t played near our best game,” Brown said. “But this game shows where we’re headed, and it shows what we can do.”
@DTHSports | firstname.lastname@example.org
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