Without Brandon Wimbush and behind yet another dominant rushing performance, Notre Dame downed an injury-riddled North Carolina squad Saturday 33-10.
After the Irish sputtered out of the gate, backup quarterback Ian Book settled into the game and led the Notre Dame on a 15 play, 80-yard drive that was capped by a six-yard touchdown pass to Cam Smith. The score was Book’s first career touchdown pass.
As the weather deteriorated in the second quarter, the Irish built their lead to 14-0 behind a 73-yard touchdown run by Josh Adams – his fifth run of 60+ yards this season.
North Carolina was able to get on the board on a 25-yard touchdown pass at the end of the second quarter. However, Notre Dame thwarted any Tar Heel momentum as the Irish forced a North Carolina safety in the closing seconds of the half and Julian Okwara recorded a spectacular interception on UNC’s opening drive of the second half.
With a banged up running back corps, the Irish turned to Deon McIntosh to drain the clock and the redshirt freshman did not disappoint. McIntosh received the bulk of the second half carries, eclipsed 100 yards, and tallied rushing touchdowns of 35 and 24 yards.
With the decisive victory vs. the Tar Heels, Notre Dame joins Georgia and Washington as the only three teams in the country with three road wins against power five teams. The Irish were just 3-11 in road games vs. power-five opponents in the previous three years.
Notre Dame has also won three straight road games vs. power-five opponents by 20 or more points for the first time since 1973.
Long’s Play Calling
Maybe it is just the North Carolina rain that makes passing irresistible to Notre Dame play callers, but the Irish threw the ball more than many expected Saturday, which had Irish fans harkening back to the 2016 N.C. State debacle.
Despite Ian Book starting his first game on the road in iffy weather against a run defense outside of the top-100 and possessing a dominant offensive line, Chip Long still dialed up 25 passes in the first half.
Book was steady yet unspectacular (17-31, 146 YDS, 1 TD, 2 INT), but the reliance on the passing game kept the Tar Heels in the game early before the rushing attack delivered the knockout blows in the second half.
How dominant has the running game been? Saturday’s contest marked the fourth time this season the Irish rushed for over 300 yards – that feat was accomplished just twice in Brian Kelly’s first seven years. Notre Dame ranks No. 3 in the country with 23 rushing touchdowns and No. 2 in yards per carry at 6.9.
With Dexter Williams out with an ankle injury and Tony Jones limited with his own ankle issues, Saturday’s performance demonstrated the depth Notre Dame has at the running back position.
The North Carolina game was the fourth time this season Josh Adams has rushed for at least 100-yards in the first half and McIntosh, who began the season at No. 4 on the depth chart, finished with 124 yards and two touchdowns on 12 carries. The redshirt freshman was awarded the game ball by Brian Kelly after the game.
Elko’s Defense By The Numbers
After Saturday’s action, Notre Dame is now one of two teams in the country to have only allowed one rushing touchdown this season. The Irish are tied with Miami in that category, but the Hurricanes have played two less games and just two power-five opponents.
The Irish did not allow the Tar Heels to gain a first down until the second quarter and they forced North Carolina into three turnovers (two fumbles and one interception). Notre Dame now has 14 takeaways this season, which matched their entire total from 2016.
The defensive line is consistently able to put pressure on the opposing QB and Elko’s blitzes are properly timed and effective. The Irish will be tested by elite and diverse offenses down the stretch, but to see the progress from last season is a testament to Elko’s coaching and scheme.
Strength of Schedule
At the onset of the season, it was clear that the second half of the schedule would be a greater challenge than the first. As the Irish approach their bye week, it appears as though their final seven games could be even more of a challenge than originally thought.
In this week’s AP poll, Wake Forest is the only remaining Notre Dame opponent who is not ranked in the top-25. While the Irish climbed to No. 16, Miami is the highest ranked opponent on the schedule as the Hurricanes came in at No. 11 in this week’s poll.
Navy snuck into the rankings at No. 25 following their wild victory over Air Force Saturday and Michigan State, Notre Dame’s best win to date, entered the poll for the first time this season at No. 21 after their upset vs. Michigan.
USC is ranked No. 13, while N.C. State is at No. 20 and Stanford is back in the rankings at No. 23.
There is a sector of Notre Dame supporters who feel the Irish have been under ranked thus far this season and by consequence, Josh Adams’ remarkable season has gone largely under the radar. Lacking a presence in the national conversation is rarely the case for Notre Dame, but that demonstrates how powerful the stench of a 4-8 season can be.
If successful, the remaining slate contains all of the ingredients for the Irish to enter into the playoff hunt and allow Adams to become a part of the Heisman conversation.
Despite dominating the Tar Heels in every statistical category, it appeared the Irish would go into the half with just a seven-point lead. After failing to get within field goal range in the closing minute of the first half, the Irish punted the ball back to North Carolina and punter Tyler Newsome pinned the ball at the Tar Heel one-yard line.
With just :38 remaining in the quarter and Notre Dame possessing just two times out, most figured Larry Fedora would call for a quarterback sneak and head into halftime down just seven.
Instead, Fedora inexplicably called for a pass on first down, which fell incomplete and then perplexingly ran a draw from a spread shotgun formation only to have Irish defensive linemen Jerry Tillery and Jay Hayes gain penetration and tackle running back Jordan Brown in the endzone for a safety.
You knew this was coming pic.twitter.com/DncbhhtdRu
— Barstool Irish (@BarstoolIrish) October 7, 2017
The play robbed North Carolina of any momentum they had garnered at the end of the half and allowed the Irish to go into the break with some more breathing room.
Runner-up for the play of the game had to be Julian Okwara’s interception on UNC’s first drive of the second half. This effort has to be the most athletic play by a Notre Dame defensive lineman this century.
— Barstool Irish (@BarstoolIrish) October 7, 2017
Notre Dame enters this week’s bye week at 5-1 and will return to action at home vs. USC on Oct. 21 in what could be the most anticipated matchup between the two rivals since 2006.