Carolina’s undefeated record failed to stand up to stricter examination after Notre Dame came to Kenan Stadium and donkey punched the Tar Heels, 45-32 — a margin that very much flattered the hosts. Were it not for a fumble millimeters from the end zone line by Irish running back Audric Estime, it could have been even more humbling.
A performance like this leads to many questions, questions that must be answered if the Heels hope to make waves in a decidedly pedestrian ACC Coastal Division. The defense was an absolute shit show and the offense was handled for the first time this season. Here are three things learned from a brutal afternoon spent laid bare-bottomed across Notre Dame’s lap, with Tommy Rees wielding the belt.
Drake Maye uncomfortable for the first time
Redshirt freshman quarterback Drake Maye has been a revelation for Carolina at a time when their best quarterback in program history left for the NFL. So far this season, Phil Longo’s offense kept humming along, pumping out yards and touchdowns (now in the red zone!) with a pleasant pace and equitable distribution amongst UNC’s skill positions.
Notre Dame was the first team that could pop that bubble, and they did so after allowing UNC to score a touchdown on their opening drive. The Irish sacked Maye three times, hit him a bunch more when he tucked the ball and ran, forced another fumble on the opening play of a drive—a similar play launched App State’s comeback—and forced him into his lowest completion percentage of the year at a paltry 53%. If Carolina was going to beat Notre Dame, the offense had to drag the defense along, and they couldn’t keep up.
Maye did throw five touchdowns, and that’s nothing to raise your nose at. But three of those came in the second half when the game was essentially decided. Credit Maye for not hiding. He did his best to run the offense and make things happen with 1.) no run support to speak of, 2.) an abnormal amount of drops from his usually reliable receivers, and 3.) a no-show from burgeoning star tight end Bryson Nesbit, who only came down with one of five targets. All three of these offensive components need to respond next week if Carolina wants to beat Virginia Tech next Saturday.
Defense lost its composure
Notre Dame broke out of their offensive malaise with an evenly spread attack. The Irish dropped 287 yards on the ground and 289 through the air, a near 50/50 split! Drew Pyne did not look particularly dangerous and missed some alarmingly easy/open throws, including a sure touchdown to Michael Mayer up the right sideline.
But with a generous cushion offered by UNC’s secondary, Pyne could take the easy, open throws underneath to get his timing and rhythm going, and keep the chains moving with pendulum-like efficiency. Carolina looked incapable of stopping the run, and it was only after the Irish got the ground game in fourth gear that Pyne started to do serious damage.
UNC’s defensive woes are well known and accepted at this point. What can’t stand is how the players lost their composure in the second half. At the start of the fourth quarter with the Irish on UNC’s 19-yard line, the Heels had two unsportsmanlike penalties in a row. Tony Grimes got handsy with Estime out of bounds, and then appeared to get into it with Noah Taylor. On the very next play, Ray Vohasek bumped Drew Pyne out of bounds, albeit with an accidental bump by Des Evans behind him.
These undisciplined moments put Notre Dame on the two-yard line, 1st & goal. Carolina’s defense was like a drowning swimmer—it couldn’t calm down enough to save itself, and all of its thrashing just pulled them under faster.
Virginia Tech offers another inept quarterback and an offense that averages 330 ypg. Carolina’s defense must gain and maintain its composure if the Heels want to have any chance of beating the Hokies next week in Chapel Hill.
Downs and Green prove their worth
Nobody is upset that Josh Downs and Antoine Green are back. You’d have to be crazy to say so, as they accounted for four of UNC’s five touchdowns.
But their reintroduction did have cascading effects on Carolina’s offense, which had been operating at a high-level in their absence. The tight ends, never featured heavily during the Sam Howell era, caught four touchdowns while Green was out with a broken collarbone. When Josh Downs was out against App State and Georgia State, Kobe Paysour stepped into the slot and had been UNC’s leading receiver. Yesterday, he caught one pass for three yards.
Notre Dame’s coverage and pressure on Maye had a lot to do with it, but how well Phil Longo integrates all of his parts will go a long way in how successful Carolina will be for the rest of the season. Josh Downs is an All-American type receiver, but you can get him the ball without making Paysour disappear.
Now, something to make us feel better...
Yesterday was rough. It’s hard to revisit that performance. So let me close with this: