After a bye week that gave the North Carolina football team time to rest and prepare for its matchup against No. 11 Notre Dame, the Tar Heels headed to South Bend with high hopes in the ninth week of their roller coaster season.
Two weeks after pulling out a win in a nail-biting offensive battle against Miami, UNC ended up on the other side of a similar affair against the Fighting Irish on Saturday night in a 44-34 loss.
The Tar Heels couldn’t quite pull out the upset, but it wasn’t the offense to blame this time. Following a slow start to the season, the offense showed up for arguably its most complete game to date against a tough Notre Dame defense.
“Offensively we looked like the offense we were last year — we ran up and down the field,” head coach Mack Brown said. “I’m really proud of them, and hopefully they can finish that way.”
Although the Tar Heel offense was historically great last season, the unit struggled to get going in the 2020 matchup against the Fighting Irish. In a 31-17 loss, UNC was held scoreless in the second half after heading into the locker room tied at 17.
This time around, the Tar Heel offense was able to operate efficiently after the half by scoring 21 points. On a night where there wasn’t much defense to speak of, they kept the fans in Carolina Blue hanging through the chilly fall night until the bitter end.
“Last year in the second half, we didn’t move the ball at all, and we did tonight,” Brown said. “We gave ourselves a chance to win.”
UNC has leaned heavily on sophomore wide receiver Josh Downs and junior quarterback Sam Howell all season, but this week, they were able to spread out the production.
In their win against Miami, the Tar Heels established the run with both Howell and graduate transfer running back Ty Chandler, but failed to get much on the receiving end outside of Downs.
Downs did his usual damage with 10 catches and 142 yards, but seven other Tar Heels also combined for 199 yards through the air.
“I think the big thing for us and why we were able to play a decent game on offense is because we got everybody involved,” Howell said. “We had all of the wideouts involved, the tight ends involved, running backs were running the ball very well, and I was running the ball a little bit. I think when we have all our weapons involved in the game plan and I’m spreading the ball around, we’re really hard to stop.”
In a game where the offense arguably put forth its best performance of the season, the defense couldn’t make it to the finish line.
After holding the Irish to 59 yards on the ground in the first half, the Tar Heel defense folded in the second, surrendering 234 rushing yards — including a decisive 91-yard fourth-quarter touchdown by running back Kyren Williams.
“I think we did a great job of stopping the run in the first half, and then in the second half I think guys were getting nosy, jumping out of their gaps and not staying disciplined,” senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said. “We’ve seen on film where if one gap is taken, (Williams is) going to try to cut back and find an open gap and he did that to us tonight.”
Going forward, the schedule doesn’t get any easier for the under-performing group. In what was anticipated to be a magical year, Mack Brown’s group will need to start putting it all together to clinch a bowl berth.
With the high-powered Wake Forest offense coming to town next week — and Pittsburgh and N.C. State still on the schedule — UNC has some opportunities to save what it can of its season, but it will require effort on both sides of the ball.
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