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Things To Learn: New-look Notre Dame offense needed against prolific North Carolina attack

As well as Notre Dame’s defense played at Ohio State, the Irish needed to risk opening up the game with their offense in order to produce enough to beat the Buckeyes. Hindsight makes both that fact clear and that Notre Dame did not have the offensive cohesion to trust it could do so.

Unless the Irish defense is about to prove itself as undeniably one of the country’s best — as in, not far from Georgia’s, Clemson’s or what is coming together at Utah — then Notre Dame’s offense will need to find that cohesion at North Carolina on Saturday (3:30 ET; ABC).

The Tar Heels offensive production defies some comprehension. No matter the opponent — in this case, FCS-level Florida A&M followed by two Sun Belt foes — putting up 51.3 points and 547.3 yards per game warrants respect. In his first three career starts, sophomore quarterback Drake Maye has completed 74.2 percent of his passes for 9.6 yards per attempt and 11 touchdowns with only one interception, adding 146 rushing yards and another score.

North Carolina (3-0) will score. Notre Dame (1-2) will need to manage more than its season high of 24 points, though by no means do the Irish want junior quarterback Drew Pyne trying to match Maye blow for blow.

“We know they’re an explosive offense, and we obviously don’t want to get into a shootout,” head coach Marcus Freeman said Monday. “I don’t think anybody in our program wants to do that, especially not the defensive side of the ball. We have to find ways to stop them, not just limit them. We have to find ways to stop their offense and be creative in terms of our plan defensively.

“Offensively, we have to be able to control the ball, but we also have to score some points. I don’t expect it to be a [10-7] game at the end of the third quarter like it was at Ohio State. This is going to be a game where we’re going to have to score some points.”

Though the Buckeyes dominated that fourth quarter in the opener, the fact remains that the Irish forced punts on five of Ohio State’s nine possessions, standing up to force a missed field goal on a sixth. Marshall found similar success running the ball late, but anytime a defense gives up only 19 points, it should be lauded. Cal’s first touchdown drive came courtesy of a short field off a Pyne fumble, scoring just 10 points otherwise.

Notre Dame’s defense has been up to the task. When the Tar Heels inevitably score — and it should be considered inevitable, especially with the possible return of star slot receiver Josh Downs and deep threat Antoine Green, neither of whom has helped Maye to this prolific start — that is simply a reality of modern college football.

As long as the Irish keep North Carolina to fewer than 30 points, the onus will be on the offense to get the win.

Neither the game plan at Ohio State (against the best offense in the country) nor the one vs. Cal (in Pyne’s first start) will push Notre Dame to a new season-high output. Something new will be needed.

Freeman said the conservative approach against Cal was less about Pyne’s limitations and more about Cal’s scheme.

“They were primarily a one-high team,” Freeman said. “One-high teams, a lot of the time, are built one, to stop the run, and two, to stop the vertical passing game. We missed a couple shots that we we took a chance on.”

Couple may have been generous. Most notably, Pyne overthrew junior tight end Michael Mayer up the seam early in the game, prompting a brief conversation with offensive coordinator Tommy Rees that was assuredly not blunt or direct. (Note: Heavy usage of sarcasm there.)

Pyne’s first touchdown pass to junior running back Chris Tyree did cover 18 yards in the air past the line of scrimmage, though. An outlier in many respects. Even the 36-yard throw-and-stumble to sophomore running back Audric Estimé, preceding Mayer’s touchdown grab, traveled just four yards past the line of the scrimmage before Estimé did the rest.

“We’re going to throw some balls downfield,” Freeman said. “We’re not going to get way with running five-yard outs and [run-pass options] and running the ball the entire game, we know that. To be able to win the upcoming games that we play, you’re going to have to be able to complete some balls down the field.”

Notre Dame’s offense hasn’t quite reached “Believe it when I see it” levels of doubt about a downfield passing game, but it is closer to that territory than anything belying confidence.

What did inspire confidence late against Cal that could spur the downfield passing game moving forward ss the Irish rushing game. Estimé may have gained only 76 rushing yards, but combine his day with Tyree’s and Notre Dame’s backs averaged four yards per carry on 35 attempts. If told exactly when to run where, most of us could have gained more than half those yards.

This is not the first time the Irish offensive line has needed time to gain momentum in a season. This has, in fact, become a Notre Dame pattern. A quick search of archives of this space pulls up a quote from then-fifth-year left tackle Liam Eichenberg following the 2020 opener against Duke.

“It’s one of those things, it’s the first game,” Eichenberg said. “I hate to say it, but it takes a couple drives to get up to game speed. …

“One of the tough things is you practice something in practice or on scout team, and it shows up in the game as something completely different. It’s just one of those things, you have to adjust to personnel, to the players you’re playing against. It’s tough. I’m not going to lie, it’s tough, but at the same time, we have to start quicker, we have to attack more, and we just need to focus on improving and going back to basics.”

That offensive line eventually propelled the Irish into the College Football Playoff, sending three players into the NFL draft.

Last season’s offensive line struggled so much in September, now-sixth-year right guard Josh Lugg essentially worked through film with the media during the month, and then in November, he was pointing to those lessons to show what had improved so much for Notre Dame to dominate the final month of the season.

The Irish may have enjoyed a moment of truth against Cal, handing off the ball to Estimé on four consecutive plays, the exact same play call four times over, to get into the end zone.

Freeman repeatedly pointed to that kind of success as an avenue for Notre Dame to open up its passing game. That will need to become proven fact on Saturday for the Irish to outpace Maye.

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