Oct. 8, 2017
By John Heisler
On a day when the Major League Baseball playoffs were in full swing, maybe it was fitting that the University of Notre Dame defense pitched the football equivalent of a three-inning, no-hitter Saturday at North Carolina.
Others obsessed about the Irish tailbacks’ health — and whether or not burgeoning national tailback star Josh Adams could continue his impactful play.
That’s when Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko’s unit took over.
Here’s what the Irish defense did to absolutely set the tone early on those first five Carolina offensive series:
- 1st possession from the Carolina 24: three plays, nine yards
- 2nd possession from the Carolina 38: three plays, one yard, thanks to a third-down incompletion forced on quarterback hurries by Julian Okwara and Andrew Trumbetti
- 3rd possession from the Carolina 49: three plays, minus-three yards after a Shaun Crawford first-down sack
- 4th possession from the Carolina 43: three plays, five yards
- 5th possession from the Carolina 25: three plays, five yards, after a first-down fumble
- Grand total: 15 plays, 17 net yards
By that time the home team had punted five times and the Irish had a 14-0 lead after Adams’ 73-yard dash — the biggest gain of the day by either team.
After one period Notre Dame held a 146-7 advantage in total yards and had run 29 plays to nine for the Tar Heels.
After Adams’ long TD run, the Irish led 225-22 in total yards (130-7 in rushing yards).
Notre Dame rolled up 10 first downs before North Carolina finally accomplished its first more than six minutes into the second period.
Before it was over, the Irish defense finished with 11 quarterback hurries and that played as key of a role as anything in Notre Dame’s third road win of the year by 20 or more points — this one by a final 33-10 count in a sometimes drenched Kenan Stadium.
“The interval, it’s six seconds,” Irish coach Brian Kelly told his team before the game.
“Focus, and then refocus. Cumulative for the entire game? It’s five minutes — five minutes of your sustained effort wins this football game. You don’t have anything next week. You have nothing. Five minutes.
“For us not to walk out of here and say we can’t dominate our opponent for five minutes? We set the standard. There’s nothing else for us to talk about any more but to play to that standard and dominate our opponent.
“There’s a quiet confidence in here. You go out and do your job and hit ’em in the mouth for four quarters.”
Kelly decided to go with Book at quarterback after Wimbush didn’t have much “bounce” on Saturday, according to the Irish head coach.
And Book, in his first career start and initial really meaningful minutes, completed his first four passes, seven of his first eight and nine of his first 12 for 95 yards (good for a 169 quarterback rating) after his touchdown throw to Cameron Smith on the first play of the second period (completing an 80-yard drive).
The rain first came two minutes into the second period — but it wasn’t near enough to stop Adams’ TD run, his fifth of 60-plus yards in 2017 and his eighth of 35 or more yards. For the third time in three games, Adams had more than 100 yards before halftime. Nine of his 16 career TD runs have been of 35 or more yards.
By the time Carolina managed that first first down, the Irish held a 243-27 edge in yards and a 38-15 edge in plays run.
An interception thrown by Book from his own end zone turned into a 47-yard Tar Heel TD drive to cut the margin to a single score, but Jay Hayes and Jerry Tillery combined on a safety with 28 seconds to go for a 16-7 halftime margin.
“Fifty-one plays we ran on offense, okay? You duplicate that, you know what’s gonna happen,” Kelly told his squad at halftime.
“We have no breaking point. We are gonna break them. But you gotta go after them. We gotta be tougher mentally in the second half. Jump balls? We come down with those. Defensively, offensively, we come down with those balls. Everybody clear on that?
“We dominate. Everybody knows what’s at stake here. Two quarters of football and that’s all we need. You know what’s on the line here.
“Fifty-one plays — don’t give them any reason to believe they can beat you. I want you to get after them physically and exhibit that mental toughness.
“They don’t have much left — have a dominant mindset and break them. We built it that way. That’s why we get up at 5:30 in the morning and lift all those weights. That’s why we condition, for this moment now.
“Everybody on board with that? It comes from within. We’ve gotta be road warriors. Two quarters of football.”
Three plays into the third period, Okwara made the defensive play of the day by batting a Tar Heel pass into the air and intercepting it at the Carolina 16. That set up a 29-yard Justin Yoon field goal.
North Carolina’s first four possessions of the third period? They equaled 12 plays for a net of two yards.
Adams did not play after the halftime break due to dehydration, but it mattered little. Sophomore Deon McIntosh made sure the Irish finished the deal with second-half TD runs of 35 and 24 yards. McIntosh earned the game ball with 124 yards (12 carries), Adams ended with 118 (13 attempts) and Book carried a dozen times for 45 yards (he finished 17 of 31 throwing for 146 yards). Adams now ranks second nationally at 9.01 rushing yards per carry.
The Irish completely shut down Carolina’s Jordan Brown who had been the leading Tar Heel rusher (he had only 28 yards on 11 carries against Notre Dame) and receiver (no catches against the Irish).
Notre Dame’s final rushing yardage margin was 341 to 86. The Irish held the ball for 12:16 of the fourth period, holding Carolina without a first down in the final period and allowing only seven net yards in that frame.
“We did the job from a physical standpoint — we broke our opponent again,” Kelly told his team when it was over.
“Taking the football away, everybody contributes in some way. Great job in the second half. That’s a third straight road win by 20 points or more and that hasn’t happened since 1973.
“Five and one at the break and now we reset. We’re in a great position. With this kind of success in a short period of time comes responsibilities. You want to be in this position? It comes with responsibilities.
“It’s a big step now these next six weeks — ranked opponents. Four out of our next six are at home. The next two are USC and North Carolina State — ranked opponents. But we’re ranked, too, so it’s gonna be exciting.
“We’ve put ourselves in great positon but we’re going to have to work harder and be smart.”
The Irish at midseason rank 15th in scoring defense (16.8 points per game allowed) and 18th in scoring (40.0). Notre Dame stands 13th in turnover margin and seventh in turnovers gained (14).
Notre Dame’s overall schedule currently stands fourth in degree of difficulty in NCAA rankings — and the remaining Irish slate is second toughest (the six remaining foes are a combined 24-6 for .800 and only Georgia Tech ranks higher at .818).
Consider that Irish defense up for that challenge.