It wasn’t North Carolina’s worst quarter this season, but it was destructive nonetheless. And this time, the Tar Heels’ offense couldn’t overcome it.
Carolina (3-1) was upended by a 24-point second quarter and fell to Notre Dame 45-32 on Saturday before a sold-out Kenan Stadium crowd. The second quarter was by far the best of the season for the Irish offense. When it was over, Notre Dame rolled up 261 total yards in the quarter alone.
“They played like a top-10 team tonight,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “And that’s the team that we saw play three quarters against Ohio State and we were afraid that’s what we’d see.”
Notre Dame’s offense previously didn’t show a whole lot to be scared of, even for a defense that has struggled with consistency like UNC has this season. Carolina held the Fighting Irish (2-2) to 40 yards in total offense in the first quarter, and they looked every bit the inept unit that entered the game averaging just 300 yards per game.
That all changed in the second quarter, when the Heels could not stop their running game. Carolina tried generously rotating its defensive linemen to keep everyone fresh, but it didn’t matter against the Irish upfront. They paved the way for huge openings as Notre Dame averaged 9.7 yards per play in the second quarter.
“Basically what they’re trying to do is block everybody down, crack the safety and make the corner tackle,” UNC linebacker Cedric Gray said. “Get their running back in space into the field, which is a challenge. That’s a little bit harder for cornerbacks, it’s not their world sometimes.”
Notre Dame didn’t have to get its running backs to the corners though, it had success going straight up the middle.
Running back Audric Estime popped a 29-yard run up through the interior of Carolina’s defense in the second quarter to set up a 40-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Drew Pyne to Lorenzo Styles. Estime finished with a career-high with 134 yards and two touchdowns while averaged 7.9 yards per carry.
Estime’s performance was a sign of how far the Heels still have to go defensively. The last time Notre Dame had a running back gain 100 or more yards was last season against Carolina when Kyren Williams had 199 yards.
Toss in Chris Tyree’s 80 rushing yards and it was the first time since the Irish played Boston College in 2017 that two backs had at least 80 rushing yards or more.
UNC’s inability to stop the ground game made anything possible for Notre Dame’s offense. Pyne made some big plays in the passing game, which had been largely missing their previous three games.
Pyne made just his second start for the Irish after replacing starter Tyler Buchner, who was injured late in their loss to Marshall. His previous career-best for passing yards was just 150 yards and two scores. He finished Saturday 24 for 34 for 289 yards and three touchdowns, which were all personal bests.
“When you can run the ball as good as they can, it makes your safeties and linebackers suck up for the run and they can throw it over your head very easily,” Brown said. “They had a couple of wheel routes that got us and that’s because our guys were trying to stop the run. So again, when you can run it like they run it, they’re gonna be hard to beat.”
And it made Carolina a lot easier to beat by keeping its offense off the field. Notre Dame held the ball for 38 minutes and ran 85 offensive plays compared to the Heels’ 21 minutes and just 60 plays.
The drive that they took the lead for good at 21-14 was a study in moving the ball in chunks. A 13-yard reception by Jayden Thomas, followed by a 19-yard run by Chris Tyree, a 17-yard run by Logan Diggs and a 19-yard catch by Michael Mayer. It set Estime up for a 1-yard touchdown run.
When Blake Grupe kicked a 40-yard field goal with 23 seconds left, it capped off a the second-most points they allowed in a quarter this season. Appalachian State scored 40 in the fourth quarter of the Heels’ 63-61 win.
Carolina allowed 576 yards in total offense, which was second only to the 649 yards it allowed against App State this season.
The break for halftime and adjustments Carolina made couldn’t disrupt Notre Dame’s momentum either. In what Brown alluded to as a turning point, the opening five minutes of the third quarter is what gave the Irish firm control of the game.
They used a six-play, 75-yard drive to score on their opening possession of the second half. Then they got their first takeaway of the season when defensive tackle Justin Ademilola recovered UNC quarterback Drake Maye’s fumble.
Carolina’s defense appeared to finally end Notre Dame’s scoring streak at five consecutive possessions when Pyne threw an incomplete pass to Tyree on fourth-and-goal. But Gray was called for pass interference in a call that got Brown animated in protest.
Brown was called for what he believed to be the first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty he’d ever received for going on to the field, losing his hat and his headset, while shouting “that’s ridiculous” at the officials.
“It’s just frustrating,” linebacker Power Echols said. “You’re fighting to win, you feel like you’ve been wronged and his emotions came out and that’s how all of us felt.”
Notre Dame took advantage of the call with another score and a 38-14 lead. Maye threw three touchdowns in the final 19 minutes of the game, but the outcome has already been decided.