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UNC vs Notre Dame: Three Things Learned

Crowds are nice. Trenches matter. A little luck helps.

NCAA Football: Notre Dame at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

UNC dropped their third game of the season when Notre Dame came to town yesterday, but the outcome left a distinctly different aftertaste compared to their two previous losses. A one-possession game for the first 58 minutes and 40 seconds, the Irish didn’t pull away until late in the fourth quarter. Only Louisville (weird) and Clemson (not so weird) were within striking distance in the the final four minutes of competition, and both of those teams led by a touchdown before giving up late scores.

So, the Heels have plenty to proud of, while also understandably beig disappointed like another chance to make a national statement slipped away. It’s all part of the program-building process. So, what can we takeaway from yesterday’s loss?

Crowds Matter

Maybe this is low-hanging fruit. It was mentioned on post-game radio shows and in Adam Lucas’ Rapid Reactions column, but it’s no less true. This is a game that you can’t but wonder if 50,000 screaming fans might have aided the home team. They certainly made a difference against Clemson, Miami, and Duke last year.

It’s fair to think that a little extra noise might have given UNC’s offense the spark it was missing. Maybe forced Notre Dame into a unwanted timeout or a few false starts (because the refs seemed dead set on calling any holding penalties on the Irish). We all remember what even a half-filled stadium can do for a less talented team thanks for the Florida State debacle last month.

That’s not to say the fans who showed up weren’t any help. But, 7,000 fans isn’t quite the same. Especially considering some of those fans may have been Notre Dame fans who purchased their tickets via online outlets from Tar Heel folks who won tickets through UNC’s lottery system.

For what its worth, I have no direct evidence. Just allegations from various social media outlets. If you have first hand knowledge, please share in the comments.

Trench Warfare

Here’s the bottom line. Jay Bateman’s crew held Notre Dame to their 3rd lowest point output of the season, tying Georgia Tech with 31 points allowed. Only Duke (27 points) and Louisville (12 points) were more effective, and Duke was the first game of the season. For what has been an inconsistent unit, that’s a solid night’s work.

Meanwhile, UNC’s 17 points scored was the 4th highest total against the Irish. Only Clemson (40 points), Boston College (31 points), and Florida State (26 points), found the end zone more often. It was a step back for a crew that has a few players on the precipice of career and single-season records, but it wasn’t exactly embarrassing either.

No. The reality is that football always has been, and always will be, won in the trenches. Right now, UNC doesn’t have the horsepower up to succeed up front against Notre Dame. It’s been a theme at times this season, but never on the same night, on both sides of the ball, for an entire 60 minutes. That all came to the forefront last night.

There is not a single senior starting on the offensive line, which is the one position group that often takes the longest to develop physically and mentally. It’s part of the reason they’ve disappeared at various points during the season. They aren’t talented enough to walk over opponents, nor are they experienced enough to mitigate any talent discrepancy through exceptional execution.

It is a similar situation on the defensive line. Junior Ray Vohasek, who did not lift weights for over two years before arriving at UNC last season due injuries, is the lone starting upperclassman. In fact, there isn’t a senior listed on the entire defensive line roster. Clyde Pinder, Myles Murphy, Jahlil Taylor and Tomari Fox, all underclassmen, accounted for eight of the defensive line’s 11 total tackles.

Sam Howell and the “skill” positions may be ready to compete against the best in the country, but the guys going to battle in the trenches are still a year or two away from dominating for 60 minutes.

A Little Luck Doesn’t Hurt

It also takes a little luck to pull an upset. A good bounce or a bad call by an official. Almost perfect execution mixed with an inordinate amount of mistakes by the more talented team. North Carolina needed just a little more than it got, while also gifting the Irish a few extra chances.

Granted, the Heels were gifted a missed FG when Notre Dame kicker Jonathan Doerer shanked a chip shot in the third quarter. Before that, a targeting penalty on safety Kyle Hamilton also seemed fortuitous. One Irish catch was overturned after a replay review. These were plays that may have benefitted UNC, but are also often normal run-of-play situations.

However, a few pass interference penalties went against the Heels’ youthful secondary. Both, though, could be debated on their merits. I certainly miss the days of “uncatchable” balls, and as Akil explained earlier today, “ not turning your head around” is not mentioned as a requirement in any rulebook for pass interference.

Two perfect punts inside UNC’s five didn’t help matters. A few spontaneous underhand flips by Book also coulda-woulda-shoulda fallen incomplete or been picked off. Multiple low or bobbled snaps turned into positive yardage. UNC’s getting drawn offsides on 4th and 1 at the NOTRE DAME 24-yard line boggles the mind, which may be more lack of discipline than luck, but don’t let facts get in the way of narratives.

Miraculously, the Fighting Irish were also not called for any holding penalties, which seemed odd to anyone with properly functioning eyeballs. To be fair, before yesterday’s game, the Irish only averaged five penalties for 42.5 yards per game. They finished with four for 24 yards.

In the end, North Carolina had opportunities, but they didn’t have many chances. Notre Dame didn’t beat themselves, which meant that UNC did not beat the Irish.