For the past three seasons, Notre Dame has served as a barometer to determine just how good the Tar Heels are.
This year — with the Fighting Irish crawling to Chapel Hill at 1-2 and UNC standing undefeated and just outside of the top 25 — North Carolina was favored to overcome its recent annual opponent.
But it didn't.
Despite taking a 7-0 lead into the second quarter, the Tar Heels didn't force the Fighting Irish to punt for the rest of the game. Notre Dame scored 24 points in the second quarter alone — tying its season-high game total in just 15 minutes en route to a 45-32 win over the Tar Heels.
As North Carolina continues the fourth year of Mack Brown’s tenure as head coach, the oft-cited measures of gradual improvement and elevating the program haven’t yet fully come to fruition.
“I told the guys, this is maybe the best team we’ve played since we’ve been here,” Brown said. “We knew they were gonna run it, and they lined up and ran it. And we’re not there. We can’t do that yet, and we should be. That’s where we’ve got to be.”
To Brown’s point, Notre Dame does have one of the most talented rosters in the country, especially in the trenches on both sides of the line — an aspect of the game North Carolina struggled to control.
The Irish finished with 287 rushing yards compared to the Tar Heels’ 66, more than half of which came from redshirt first-year quarterback Drake Maye.
“Tonight, Notre Dame was better than we are,” Brown said. “They’ve had top-10 recruiting classes every year, so you know they’ve got great players… That’s one of the best teams we’ve played since we’ve been here.”
In the four completed recruiting classes since 2019, Notre Dame has averaged about the 12th best recruiting class annually, according to 247Sports rankings. In that same span, the Tar Heels have averaged about the 17th best.
A recruiting gap exists between the two programs, but their respective results in the last two seasons have displayed an even larger discrepancy on the field.
After Saturday’s contest, North Carolina had the 123rd ranked scoring defense among 131 FBS teams. Those defensive shortcomings showed themselves before and after the whistle blew on some plays.
In the fourth quarter on Saturday, junior cornerback Tony Grimes was called for an unnecessary roughness penalty following a late hit out of bounds. UNC jack Noah Taylor exchanged words with him following the play, and a scuffle ensued.
“Obviously I’m very frustrated,” junior linebacker Cedric Gray said. “We’ve just got to get back to the drawing board.”
After Saturday, North Carolina is 3-1 heading into ACC play. The team is still young, and many key pieces from the last two years have been replaced by new faces.
But for a program that has reached such heights on the recruiting trail, remained competitive with the nation's elite programs and been led by a pair of NFL-caliber quarterbacks in the past four years, results like Saturday's aren't fitting.
“It’s just a little similar to last year,” wide receiver Josh Downs said. “A lot of the guys that are playing this year didn’t experience last year and I did. It’s not like this is a new thing to me. It’s just a little frustrating.”
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