Ugh. What else is there, really, to say? I’ll dispense with the preamble and just get to the grades.
On a day where not much else was working, Drake Maye absolutely carried his team to a respectable final score. He didn’t hit as many of his passes as we’re used to, going just 17/32 including a really rough stretch in the middle of the game, but he ended up with 301 yards and 5 touchdowns through the air. You could see him learning on the job, as well — after an early pass on 3rd and long was broken up because he’d flighted the ball a little too much to his target, he fixed the issue and just let it rip, generating enough velocity on multiple passes to fit them into tight windows and not letting defenders get their hands on balls going over their heads while dropping them in. The really impressive thing about Maye is that at his young age, I’m not sure I’ve seen him make a bad decision with the ball. His processing is already elite — every incompletion was either a miscommunication, a throwaway, or just a subpar throw to the right receiver. Speaking of that last one, he’s still got stuff to clean up. While he was UNC’s leading rusher on the day, this was the first game he’d played against Power Five-level athletes on defense, meaning that angles and gaps he had attacked in UNC’s first three games were closing too fast for him to take advantage. He also created a sack for himself and gave up a fumble at a costly time on one of the two that wasn’t on him; that’s an issue that urgently needs to be corrected. He’s also got to be careful of not letting loose with his footwork, which robbed him of a couple of gimmes on failed two-point conversion attempts and caused a few incompletions that counted, as well.
Running Backs: C
UNC’s lack of run game yesterday isn’t entirely on the backs, because on most carries the Notre Dame defensive line won the line of scrimmage and didn’t really give them anywhere to go, and they didn’t get a ton of opportunities to go off tackle or to the edges to try and neutralize the battle in the trenches. But ultimately, when the non-quarterback run game gets about 50 yards the whole game, there’s not much else I can say. Omarion Hampton, Caleb Hood, D.J. Jones, and George Pettaway all got opportunities, and none of them could find holes against the Notre Dame front. On the bright side, all of them did quite well in pass protection, and Hampton scored on a swing pass in the red zone where he destroyed a couple of pursuit angles and showed excellent body control to get the ball over the pylon as he was being pushed out of bounds.
Welcome back, Josh Downs and Antoine Green. Neither of UNC’s top two receivers from last year looked at 100% in their returns to live action, but they were certainly healthy enough to play and make a difference. Downs wasn’t his usual self between the 20’s, getting open a few times but clearly playing a step slow. In the red zone, though, he shone, catching the game’s first touchdown in the back corner of the end zone by Mossing his defender, and then the second touchdown on a whip route that took a tick too long to develop (and might have been improvised) but that was so devastating that he was all alone. Downs did lead the team with 5 catches, but only posted 32 yards, as his 3 non-touchdown receptions were two 14-yard first downs and a failed tunnel screen. Green looked a little rusty to start the game, dropping two passes on a three-and-out near the end of the half that gave Notre Dame an unexpected extra chance to score. He looked like his old self in the second half, though, burning a Notre Dame corner for an 80-yard score that maintained some hope and then taking advantage of a garbage-time lapse for another touchdown on verts. UNC’s been missing that safety-occupying deep threat the first part of the season, and it’s heartening to see Green be that. The rest of the corps were fine. J.J. Jones saw a lot of action and made a couple of tough catches down the sideline, Gavin Blackwell dropped a couple of really tough catches, and Kobe Paysour, surprisingly, didn’t get on the field much, his only catch coming on a swing pass that didn’t get much.
Offensive Line: C-
Up against the first defensive front this year that could match them in physicality and skill, Jack Bicknell’s offensive line struggled mightily. We knew that Bicknell’s hiring probably meant trading some run game effectiveness for better pass protection, and that’s a trade I’m super fine with. But they have to be better than what they were Saturday, when they were consistently unable to open holes or move the line of scrimmage against a Notre Dame line that’s only decent. UNC did see some success running off tackle, with William Barnes doing his job well to seal defensive ends, but overall, it was an afternoon to forget. They were a bit better in the passing game; they allowed two sacks including a costly one that turned into a fumble, but two sacks in a game is absolutely fine. The other sack on the record was on the quarterback, as mentioned before.
Defensive Line: F
I’m not going to say anything here that the majority of UNC fans aren’t thinking, but this group’s performance is just dumbfounding. Besides quarterback, it’s probably the most talented position group on the whole roster, and yet, snap after snap, we watched them get blown off the ball or washed in whatever direction Notre Dame desired, even when it was clear the Irish were going to run every down until they were stopped, and they still ran for nearly 6 yards a carry. The line seems to just be relying on raw strength to do whatever it is they need, so they’re constantly losing the leverage battle, taking false steps that leave them vulnerable, and not using their hands or arms in any kind of creative fashion, and then getting run over either by an offensive lineman or a running back because they’ve already lost body control. Things weren’t different in pass rush. UNC managed one sack on a linebacker blitz and batted down two passes at the line on the opening drive, but other than that, the Irish’s passing downs mostly looked identical: a pocket that would gently ebb towards him as he found a target, maybe a little cramped but mostly unthreatened. This is not a Notre Dame offensive line of the kind you’re used to, either. They’re just okay, if that, and their ability to absolutely demolish UNC’s line snap after snap is as sure a sign that you can get that something needs to change.
Cedric Gray had another great game, leading the team in tackles (13) and tackles for loss (1.5) and consistently keeping positive plays for the Irish from turning into big plays whenever he could. He also took care of his coverage responsibilities, keeping the ball away from his short flat area. He made a great play on a 4th and goal for the Irish, getting incorrectly called for pass interference, but that showed off what he can do in coverage. The problems came with his counterpart, Power Echols, who’s a great player and leader but has a ways to go as a coverage linebacker. Three separate times, the broadcast caught him getting fooled by play action and keeping his eyes in the backfield as Michael Mayer ran past him across the field for big gains, once for a touchdown. He did help finish tackles in the run game, showing his sideline-to-sideline coverage, but the Notre Dame offensive coordinator clearly exploited him in the passing game and that’s something new this defense will have to fix. Backing them up, RaRa Dillworth was absolutely swallowed in the trenches nearly every time I saw him — for all his speed, he can’t seem to stay upright in close quarters to try and convert that speed to power.
This unit was... not as egregious as they’d been the previous three games. Will Hardy, a true freshman, gave up a big play but then had a huge pass breakup later on that I think was wrongly attributed to Storm Duck. Duck had a nice coverage rep against Mayer where he forced him out of bounds on a would-be touchdown grab. Tony Grimes had a couple of good reps where his receiver was targeted and either forced out of bounds or blanketed. DeAndre Boykins played pretty well all game. But that was about the extent of the positives, and there was a lot of football other than those plays. Taking advantage of Gene Chizik’s refusal to put cornerbacks near the line of scrimmage on -and medium situations, Notre Dame receivers consistently found themselves open for moderate gains, and were often athletic enough to make the closing defensive back (often, but not exclusively, Cam Kelly) miss before being taken down. Grimes was flagged for an absolutely silly personal foul when he shoved a receiver after ferrying him out of bounds, and Lejond Cavazos was called for pass interference in the end zone after laying out a receiver coming into his zone (the ball wasn’t catchable, but oh well). A lot of those drawbacks point to something a little bigger than them, but even when the secondary is given chances to execute, it’s only happening, like, a fifth of the time.
Special Teams: B-
It was an unremarkable day for UNC’s special teams. Jonathan Kim bounced back from allowing a few returns against Georgia State by earning touchbacks on every kickoff, Noah Burnette only had a couple of extra points to convert, and the kickoff return team handled a couple of short kickoffs adequately. The only foible was in the punt game, where Ben Kiernan had one of his best days as a punter, with five kicks at a 48.4 yard average, but UNC’s coverage was lacking, allowing nearly 15 yards a return. Was that on Kiernan outkicking his coverage with flat trajectories, or just bad coverage? I lean towards the latter, but I’m not entirely sure.
I don’t know, man.
As tempting as it is to leave things there, I’ll try and write through exactly what’s happening on the sidelines in Chapel Hill. On the offensive side, things went okay, but there were some frustrating spots. The red zone playcalling on first and second down was way too uncreative; the inability to adjust the run game to attack the edges or emphasize cutback lanes was maddening and probably made things harder on the offense than they needed to be; the two-minute drill starting with three passes, all of which fell incomplete, gave Notre Dame a drive more than they should have had (even though two of those passes were just straight-up dropped). But as usual, the offense ticked along, finding holes in the passing game and doing enough to win. There’s been a tendency among UNC fans to hone in on those frustrating offensive tendencies because they’ve often been ill-timed and exacerbated the defense’s troubles, but make no mistake — with an even mediocre defense, those lost drives would get lost in the wind.
Speaking of that defense... I mean, it’s wrong at basically every level. The defensive line isn’t getting pressure, as established, but nothing’s being done to alleviate that. Power Echols got a sack on a blitz, but that didn’t get repeated often enough. When it was clear the Fighting Irish were going to lean on their run game, the personnel in the box wasn’t adjusted and nickel personnel just got run over for extra yards all game, to the flabbergast of Dan Orlovsky in the booth. Orlovsky also noted Chizik asking his cornerbacks to line up behind the line to gain. The first time he saw it, he called it laziness on the players’ part. After the fifth time or so, he was just speechless, apparently coming to the conclusion that it could only be coaching. College broadcasts never call out bad coaching, and this stunned silence was as close as we could expect to it. As for the head guy, Mack Brown made himself visible on the sidelines when he got into an official’s face following the pass interference call on Gray, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on top of it. I guess that can answer the questions around the internet about whether or not he’s got enough emotion left in him to coach. On the fourth down in question, he had to burn a timeout to get a player on the field. But zooming out a little bit, the team just looked unprepared to deal with an extremely predictable gameplan, and that’s coming off a bye, with plenty of warts having shown in defensive gameplan and execution and seemingly nothing having been done to address them. Just unacceptable. I don’t know what’s happening during the week in practices and in meeting rooms, but every indicator we can see on the field is that this program isn’t being run well. Maybe things can turn around against a mostly hapless Coastal, but it feels uncomfortably like this game has told us more than we’d like to hear about the ceiling of this iteration of UNC football.