Three things we learned about UNC football in 45-32 loss to Notre Dame

Robert Willett/rwillett@newsobserver.com

Two years ago when North Carolina lost to Notre Dame at home, coach Mack Brown pointed out the differences upfront as a benchmark. The Tar Heels’ 45-32 loss to the Irish Saturday at Kenan Stadium showed they still have a lot of catching up to do in those areas.

Notre Dame dominated offensively with a run game that hadn’t produced much in its previous three games. And Carolina’s offensive line couldn’t push the Irish around on defense enough to open up holes for its running backs to roam.

The result was the Heels’ third straight loss to Irish in three consecutive seasons. Here’s what we learned from UNC’s loss:

UNC will struggle when it can’t run

When quarterback Drake Maye finishes as Carolina’s leading rusher in a game, more often than not, it’s a bad sign. That was the case against Notre Dame, as Maye led the team with just 36 rushing yards.

Take away running back Omarion Hampton’s 12-yard run and on his other nine attempts he gained just 16 yards. He wasn’t alone though. The Heels gained just 66 yards total on 28 attempts.

“They were heating us up a little bit on first down to stop the run,” Maye said. “...They backed us up and brought pressure when they had to.”

After Carolina scored on its opening possession of the game, it ran a combined 11 plays on its next three possessions and totaled just 11 yards.

Georgia State had a similar game plan in UNC’s 35-28 win on Sept. 10. The Panthers held Carolina’s ground game in check for a half before Hampton burst a 58-yard run late in the third quarter and finished with 110 rushing yards.

The Heels were never able to flip that switch against the Irish.

“What it seemed to me is that they they said, ‘We are not going to let you run the ball,’ ” Brown said. “They were blitzing a lot with their linebackers and they were gonna make us throw it. I thought our offensive line did a masterful job in pass protection. When you can’t run it, it is really hard to pass protect. And Drake had a lot of time most of the time.”

Maye finished 17 of 32 for 301 yards and five touchdowns, which seemed like a much better performance than actually played out. The Irish led 38-14 before Maye threw for three scores on the Heels’ final three drives of the game.

Downs and Green are officially back

Senior receiver Antoine Green missed the Heels’ first three games with a shoulder injury. Junior receiver Josh Downs hadn’t played since injuring his left knee in the fourth quarter of the opener against Florida A&M.

Both not only returned against the Irish, they accounted for four of the Heels’ touchdowns.

Downs said he realized on Tuesday when he returned to practice that he’d be able to play. He recorded the first two scores of the game for Carolina and finished with five catches for 32 yards.

“I didn’t know how good I was gonna feel like playing against a whole nother team, especially Notre Dame,” Downs said. “So just being able to make a play like that is a blessing — and not coming out of the game with any injuries.”

Green had three catches for 150 yards and reinstated his mark as the Heels’ deep threat. His first catch of the season was an 80-yard bomb in the third quarter, which is Carolina’s longest play from scrimmage this season. He followed that with a 64-yard touchdown in the fourth.

Having Downs and Green back didn’t produce a win against the Irish, but they give Virginia Tech something to worry about for next week’s game.

Brown’s penalty an inspiration?

To outside observers, Brown’s foray onto the field to protest a fourth-down pass interference all on linebacker Cedric Gray was poor optics. Not to the players though.

What they saw from Brown’s UNC hat on the turf along with his headset dragging behind him as he pointed to the replay on the scoreboard was a coach fighting for them.

“Everybody was just like, ‘Oh, y’all saw Mack out there going crazy?’ ” Downs said. “... It was a moment. Coach cares about us. So I feel like he was standing by us in that moment, everybody felt like that.”

Brown got what he said was his first unsportsmanlike conduct penalty in a game. He said he’s probably deserved one before, but most officials would simply acknowledge that he was upset and walk him back to the sideline before discussing the call. This official had “a quick release” in throwing the flag.

“I was definitely happy to see my head coach, trying to defend me,” Gray said. “Sure, it might have got us a penalty but, for the team morale, you like having your coach trying to have your back. So that is a positive that we can take from that moving forward.”