As the game clock dwindled down in UNC’s 45-32 loss to Notre Dame on Saturday, the Tar Heels’ defense finally reached its breaking point.
On a potential fourth-down stop late in the third quarter, linebacker Cedric Gray was called for pass interference. This warranted an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty to be called on Mack Brown, who said it was the first of such penalty in his 44-year coaching career.
On the Fighting Irish’s ensuing drive, cornerback Tony Grimes and linebacker Noah Taylor traded words and got into a shoving match on the sideline after Grimes was called for a late hit on a Notre Dame player.
After narrowly falling to Notre Dame in the past two seasons, Saturday seemed like a prime opportunity for the 3-0 Tar Heels to make a statement. Instead, the North Carolina defense had trouble posing any type of threat, despite the Fighting Irish entering Chapel Hill with an uncharacteristic 1-2 record and an offense that ranked in the bottom 20 FBS teams in total yardage.
“They just lined up and hit us right in the face,” Brown said. “They just kept running, kept running, and we couldn’t get them off the field.”
After the Tar Heels opened the afternoon with a productive touchdown drive, the defense seemed energized in the game's early stages. Two pass deflections by Taylor and Raymond Vohasek led to a punt on Notre Dame’s first drive, and UNC looked ready to control the tempo.
Then, unlike the fast-paced, mobile quarterback-operated offenses that have given UNC fits in recent years, Notre Dame resorted to a slow, methodical offense predicated on power running. Throughout the contest, the Irish averaged 5.6 yards per carry and frequently pushed the Tar Heel defenders deep into the secondary.
"With their scheme, they block everyone down, crack the safety and make the corner tackle," Gray said. "This gets their running back into space, which is a challenge."
As soon as North Carolina dialed in on the run, Notre Dame let quarterback Drew Pyne take control.