Audric Estime (7) celebrates with teammates after scoring. (Photo by Charles Brock/Icon Sportswire)

Play defense and run the football.

Last week after 156 yards rushing and racking up six sacks on defense, it was a faint echo. By the third quarter this past Saturday against North Carolina, it was a big screen, high-def extravaganza, crystal clear to anyone who watched. 

Notre Dame Football 2022 has an identity.

At the 4:08 mark of the third of the third quarter, looking to answer Drake Mayes 75-yard TD toss to Antoine Green that had snugged the score up to 38-20, the Irish started a drive at their own 25. 12 plays later, 11 of them runs, the Irish found the end zone. In the process they burned a shade under six minutes off the clock and broke the Tar Heels will.

The offensive line, from Joe Alt to Jarret Patterson, Zeke Correll, Josh Lugg and Blake Fisher, imposed their will on shell shocked North Carolina defensive front.   Maybe this Harry Hiestand guy knows what he is doing after all.

On the backbreaking drive, Audric Estime pounded his way to 42 yards on five carries, Logan Diggs chipped in a carry for nine yards and Chris Tyree 11 yards on four carries including the TD from one yard out.  On the day Estime ran for 134, Tyree 80 and Diggs 50. Estime averaged 7.9 yards per carry, overall, the Irish notched 5.6 yards per carry. 

It was this drive that seemingly broke whatever will the Tar Heel defense had left.  Not a good group to begin with, things devolved into finger pointing and personal fouls as the Irish ate the Tar Heels lunch.  

Physical domination of another team like the ND offensive line and hard charging backs showed throughout much of the game can have that kind of effect.  And it’s a very effective tool that leads to winning football games. 

Marcus Freeman enjoyed it, “It’s what you hope Notre Dame Football is going to be about.  That you’re going to have an o-line that can run the ball, even if the team knows we’re going to run the ball….at will for four or five yards.” He said post-game.

If a powerful running attack is the essence of the Fighting Irish 2022 identity, a complimentary passing game with a mantra of “Doctor do no harm” is also becoming part of the picture.  After his first two passes were blocked at the line of scrimmage, Drew Pyne settled in to a 24-34 day good for 289 yards and 3 TDs.  Leading the receiving parade was another ground and pounder, Michael Mayer with seven catches for 88 yards and a TD. 

For the second straight week, Pyne kept the passing game clean with no interceptions.  Now with two starts under his belt, Pyne is competing 69.8% of his passes with no interceptions while in the starter’s role. How good is that? Last season Jack Coan set the all-time ND single season completion percentage record at 65.5%

ND’s identity as a physical grind it out team on offense, carries over nicely to the defense.  

For the second straight week the Irish defense performed nearly as well as billed in the preseason.  Last week six sacks, and eight tackles for loss. This week three sacks, and seven tackles for loss. Oh, and after 14 quarters, the Irish finally snatched a takeaway on North Carolina’s first snap of the second half. And they did more.  Despite some explosive plays that keep the game out of the rout category, The Irish held North Carolina’s high-flying offense to 368 yards, 179 under their average and to 32 points, 19 less than their average. Perhaps even more impressive, North Carolina managed just 66 yards on the ground.  Far below their 237 yards per game average. 

In fact, the Irish Defense has been solid and just a quarter of two away from outstanding all season long, particularly when it comes to the bottom line:  points given up.  Since the Irish held Ohio State to 21 points week one, the Buckeyes powerful offense has scored 45, 77 and 52 points. Overall, the Irish have given up just 24 points per game against a schedule that has included two of the top scoring teams in the country. 

One missing aspect on defense through three games for the Irish had been production from a defensive end not named Isiah Foskey.  Through three games, Rylie Mills, who typically lines up opposite Foskey, had produced just 3 tackles, 0 sacks and 1.5 tackles for loss.  Against the Tar Heels he was a terror:  5 tackles, 2 sacks and 2.5 tackles for loss. 

Another positive aspect of Saturday’s game was how it showcased the Irish knack for improvement.  Improvement over the course of four games by the offensive line has been significant.  That may have something to do with Jarret Patterson’s return to health, but the difference in this unit’s effectiveness from week to week is undeniable. 

Since game one, kick coverage and kick return teams have improved.  Since the Marshall game, overall effort that lasts four quarters has been the rule. Since last week’s win over Cal when Jack Plummer burned the Irish several times on third down scrambles, the Irish defense was much more disciplined this week in containing North Carolina’s Drake Maye. Against Cal, the Irish passing game was stuck in the flats and underneath crossing routes.  Against North Carolina, Drew Pyne got the ball down the field on several occasions.

Certainly, the Irish performance Saturday was not perfect. Particularly in light of the Tar Heels porous defense. At the same time the prowess of NC’s offense is undeniable.

 Lapses on the back end of the ND defense late in the contest, made the game much closer than it should have been.  80- and 64-yard touchdown passes are the kind of plays dominant defenses should not give up.  Blake Grupe missed a 44-yard FG in the first quarter.  Audric Estime’s fumble on the goal line, marred an otherwise breakout day for the red shirt freshman.

With teams the caliber of Clemson, USC and BYU in two weeks, lurking on the Irish schedule, more improvement will be necessary for the Irish to complete their turn around from an 0-2 start. 

But an identity for the Irish 2022 is now in focus, and it can be a formula for winning football games.

Play defense and run the football.  

Enjoy the bye week, and I’ll see you next in Vegas.

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By Phil Houk

For 25 years, bringing you the glory of Notre Dame football.

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