The North Carolina football team gave its most balanced offensive performance of the season against No. 11 Notre Dame but fell miles short of matching the offense with an equally solid defensive showing.
Led by junior quarterback Sam Howell, the offense managed to look potent, playing one of its best games at this point in the year.
“We had all our weapons involved in the game plan,” Howell said. “When I’m spreading the ball around, we’re really hard to stop.”
On the flip side, UNC's defense certainly didn’t have a cakewalk of a game in front of it, as the Notre Dame offense had several weapons of its own to attack the Tar Heels.
The Fighting Irish took comfort with having Jack Coan and Tyler Buchner as quarterback options, depending on what they wanted to exploit on a play.
If Notre Dame thought UNC would overcommit to stopping the run, they would sub in Coan to unlock the passing game. If the defense focused on slowing down the receivers, they would throw in Buchner and let him run.
Sometimes, the Fighting Irish used Buchner to make the defense think he would run it when he would actually throw it. That exact tactic freed a receiver for Notre Dame’s first touchdown of the game.
Oh, and don’t forget containing running back Kyren Williams, who ran for 199 rushing yards in the game.
Head coach Mack Brown wasn’t shy to pile praise onto Williams, calling his 91-yard touchdown rush early in the fourth quarter one of the best he’s ever seen. Senior linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel praised Williams’ ability to find gaps in the defensive line.
“Of all the backs I’ve played in college, I think he’s probably had the best vision I’ve faced,” Gemmel said. “Even when the gap is not open, it’s not hard for him to hit two jump cuts and find the open gap.”
Gemmel was positive about the defensive performance against Williams in the first half, but he said that in the second half, the defensive line became too eager to hop out of gaps, allowing Williams to cut back and exploit them.
Still, this isn’t the first time UNC has struggled to contain the run this season. Williams’ 91-yard rush zapped any momentum the Tar Heels had built up, and they never wrestled control back.
After the game, Brown couldn’t pinpoint an exact cause of the team's defensive woes.
“I really can’t say,” Brown said. “They scored too easily, I know that.”
Brown will, of course, have more time to recollect in the next week, but allowing teams to score too easily has been a worrying trend for the Tar Heels this season.
The team ranks 78th among Division I teams in yards allowed per play (5.85), in the bottom half in sacks per game (1.88) and in the bottom 10 in rushing yards allowed per game (175.6).
On Saturday, the defense allowed 293 rushing yards, landed one sack and allowed 7.7 yards per play, well above Notre Dame’s average of 5.54 for the season.
The bar isn’t high, and UNC didn’t even hit par. So where does improvement come from?
To Gemmel, the problem on defense wasn’t communication like in previous games. It wasn’t a lack of effort, and it wasn’t defensive coordinator Jay Bateman’s adjustments.
But once Notre Dame turned to its run game in the second half, Gemmel felt the line got too jumpy and allowed too many gaps.
“Something that we can take to the next level is switching up our blitz looks,” Gemmel said. “Like making it look like we’re coming from one side, but we’re really coming from another.”
Saturday's performance doesn’t bode well for the remainder of UNC's schedule, which includes undefeated No. 10 Wake Forest, as well as Pittsburgh and N.C. State, who are both 6-2.
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