The Daily Tar Heel

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Wednesday December 7th

UNC football defense approaches rock bottom in loss to Notre Dame

Junior defensive back, Storm Duck (3), and sophomore linebacker, Power Echols (23), go in for the tackle in Kenen Stadium on Sept. 24, 2022, at the UNC game against Notre Dame. UNC lost 45-32.
Buy Photos Junior defensive back, Storm Duck (3), and sophomore linebacker, Power Echols (23), go in for the tackle in Kenen Stadium on Sept. 24, 2022, at the UNC game against Notre Dame. UNC lost 45-32.

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.

Following a season-ending injury to starter Tyler Buchner in week two, Pyne made his second start of the season and exposed UNC's defensive backs, ending the night with a career-best 289 passing yards and three touchdowns.

When the Fighting Irish took the lead midway through the second quarter, the team’s first two touchdowns came via blown assignments on play-action plays. Later in the third quarter, when the team stretched its lead to 17, Pyne found a wide-open Logan Diggs on a wheel route as he waltzed into the end zone. 

“When you can run the ball as good as they can, it makes your safeties and linebackers suck up for the run and they throw it over your head very easily,” Brown said.

Although the Fighting Irish averaged only 300 yards per game in their first three contests, they bested that total in the first half. Notre Dame finished with 24 points in the second quarter alone, which was tied for the most points the team had scored in a game all year.

Over the past few seasons, North Carolina's high-octane offense has been its best defense. For every lackluster showing on that front, a Sam Howell or Drake Maye record-breaking performance would act as a pivotal lifeline. On Saturday, even Maye's 301 passing yards and five touchdowns weren't enough.

Just weeks removed from allowing a near-NCAA record 40 points in the fourth quarter against App State, as well as surrendering 25 straight points to a winless Georgia State team, the defensive unit filled with highly-touted prospects and decorated personnel was finally dealt its first true reality check with Saturday's loss.

The team must quickly find its identity before beginning conference play next week.

"We're competitors, we want to win at the end of the day," sophomore linebacker Power Echols said. "And when you don't win, especially when you put so much time into it, you're going to be upset, especially when you care about it the way that we do."  

@hunternelson_1 

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com 

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