Tar Heels dominated by Notre Dame in measuring stick game

UNC dropped its first game of the year, struggling to stop the Irish’s rushing attack

UNC quarterback Drake Maye fumbles the ball and Notre Dame defensive lineman Justin Ademilola recovers it during the Irish’s 45-32 win Saturday in Chapel Hill. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — UNC football had a chance to benchmark itself against one of the top programs in college football history on Saturday. And once again, the Tar Heels got the short end of the measuring stick.

Notre Dame scored 24 points in a seven-minute span and bullied UNC en route to a 45-32 win at Kenan Stadium. The Tar Heels fell to 2-21 all-time against the Fighting Irish and haven’t won a game in the series since 2008, losing in each of the last three seasons.

Against the 10 winningest programs in FBS history — Michigan, Ohio State, Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, Notre Dame, Penn State, Nebraska, USC and Tennessee — UNC now has a combined 20-62-1 record and hasn’t won a game since beating Tennessee in the Music City Bowl following the 2010 season. Expanding the list to the top 15 (Georgia, LSU, Auburn, Clemson and West Virginia) and the Heels are 47-124-4 all time. They’ve lost their last 10 against the best teams in football, going winless for a dozen seasons and counting.

On Saturday, the Tar Heels had one of their best chances in recent history to make a statement against a college football blue blood. Notre Dame entered with a 1-2 record, including a shocking loss to Marshall. The Irish were on their second quarterback of the season following an injury to their opening day starter, and Notre Dame’s only win came after withstanding a last-second Hail Mary last week against Cal.

It marked the first time Notre Dame played the Tar Heels when the Irish had a losing record and UNC had a winning one.

None of that mattered. Against a premier program in the sport, the Tar Heels were not up to snuff.

The Irish overpowered UNC at the line of scrimmage, rushing for 302 yards on 51 carries, a 5.6 average per rush. Late in the first half, Notre Dame was averaging more than eight yards every time it ran the ball.

“When you rush the ball as well as they did tonight, it’s easy,” UNC coach Mack Brown said of the Irish. “They played like a top-10 team tonight.”

In the second half, the Irish ran the ball 17 times for 167 yards in the second half, controlling the ball for more than 12 minutes of the third quarter and 10 minutes of the fourth in a dominant performance on offense that Carolina was powerless to stop.

“They just lined up and hit us right in the face,” Brown said, “and kept running it and kept running it.”

After trading touchdowns in the early going, Notre Dame broke open a 14-14 tie midway through the second quarter. The Irish had rushes of 17 and 19 yards on a 75-yard scoring drive that ended with a 1-yard touchdown rush with 2:37 left before half. Notre Dame added a field goal in the final minute to take a 10-point lead into the break.

“The start of the second half was an absolute killer,” Brown said. The Irish opened the half with a six-play 75-yard touchdown drive. Quarterback Drake Maye then fumbled on UNC’s first offensive snap after halftime, and the Irish found the end zone again on a 1-yard plunge. Over 6:58 of game time spanning the two halves, Notre Dame added 24 consecutive points.

Maye battled to keep the Tar Heels in the game, finishing with 302 yards and five touchdown passes, including an 80-yarder to Antoine Green, but the defense was just not able to stop the Irish. In addition to the rushing show — led by Audric Estime (134 yards, two touchdowns) and Chris Tyree (80 yards and a TD — the passing game found gaps in the UNC coverage all night. Michael Mayer seemed impossible to cover, catching seven passes for 88 yards and a score. Quarterback Drew Pyne, in his second start, threw for 389 yards and three touchdowns.

Brown, who spent all week saying he expected to see the “same old Notre Dame,” was not surprised.

“That’s the team we expected to see,” he said.

And yet again, the Tar Heels could not get to the same level.