Tar Heels’ offense stalls in loss to Notre Dame

UNC's longshot bid to reach the ACC Championship Game ended with the 31-17 defeat

Notre Dame linebacker Marist Liufau sacks UNC quarterback Sam Howell during the Fighting Irish's 31-17 win Friday night in Chapel Hill. (Gerry Broome / AP Photo)

North Carolina led for a good portion of the first half, but No. 2 Notre Dame proved to be too much down the stretch, pulling away for a 31-17 win at Kenan Stadium on Friday afternoon.

The Tar Heels appeared ready to pick up where they left off in their last game — a record-setting shootout with Wake Forest — as UNC and Notre Dame exchanged touchdowns in a 14-14 first quarter.

The Irish defense quickly restored order, however, holding Carolina to one field goal the rest of the way.

“You saw it. I saw it. It looked like they whipped us up front,” UNC coach Mack Brown said of the offense. “On offense, we absolutely got hit in the mouth, and we didn’t respond very well.”

Three thoughts

1. Quarterback Sam Howell was sacked six times in the game and under heavy pressure much of the way. Early in the game, he was able to cut and run, scrambling for yards, but the Fighting Irish were able to contain him as the day wore on.

“It’s unfair to a quarterback to be harassed like that,” Brown said. “And then Sam doesn’t know how much time he has back there.”

2. The Tar Heels had nine penalties for 90 yards, while Notre Dame had four for 24. That included an illegal procedure penalty on JaVonte Williams on third-and-short on UNC’s first drive of the second half. UNC punted Notre Dame to the 3 then committed two costly penalties for a total of 20 yards on Notre Dame’s 97-yard touchdown drive. One came on a fourth-and-1 from the Irish 24 where UNC committed a drive-extending offside penalty.

“Everybody in the stadium and everybody watching on TV knew what they were doing,” Brown said. “We can’t have that. … They weren’t going to go for it.” Notre Dame had five first downs by way of penalty, one more than UNC’s total first downs in the entire second half.

3. The loss ended UNC’s outside shot at getting a berth in the ACC Championship Game. The Tar Heels are still in position to make a significant bowl trip, however. The Bowl Season organization of postseason games released its first ever bowl projections and had the Tar Heels slotted for the Gator Bowl, against Arkansas.

Number to Know

253-78 — Notre Dame’s total offense yards compared to North Carolina in the second half. The two teams were nearly dead even at halftime, with the Irish gaining 225 yards and the Tar Heels 220. “We just didn’t hold up offensively in the second half,” Brown said.

They Said It

“I told the team in the locker room, ‘We don’t have moral victories.’”

— Tar Heels coach Mack Brown

Player of the Game

Ben Kiernan, Tar Heels punter — It may seem like a shot against the Tar Heels, but with the offense and defense struggling, Kiernan helped keep the game from getting out of reach with a career day. He averaged 50.6 yards on his seven punts and put five of them inside the 20, including one at the 3. He also had a long punt of 62 yards.

Critical thinking

It’s easy to say that UNC was careless or undisciplined in committing so many penalties, and easier still to complain about the officiating. Brown took a different tack, however, pointing out a fact that many fans often miss.

“Usually, if you’re playing a great team, you’re going to have more penalties,” he said. “If your offensive line is having trouble blocking them, you’re going to hold more. If your corners are having trouble covering, you’re going to have more pass interference.”

Notre Dame is No. 2 in the country for a reason. The Irish are more talented than the Tar Heels at this point. That goes a long way in explaining what happened on the field today.