SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — Notre Dame’s choppy offense finally found smoother sailing — at least for one week.
Now, quarterback Drew Pyne needs to help the Fighting Irish perform at a high level on Saturday when they visit North Carolina (3-0) and a defense that’s ranked among the nation’s worst.
“We definitely executed together a lot more often, but we’re still not quite where we want to be yet,” Notre Dame center Zeke Correll said, critiquing last weekend’s 24-17 victory over California. “We’re still focused on building off of each performance and improving.”
The win finally provided some glimmers of hope after the struggles that led to back-to-back losses to start the season and were compounded when starting quarterback Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury.
Pyne replaced Buchner and won his first career start, which also gave first-year coach Marcus Freeman his first career win.
But the Irish (1-2) still find themselves in potentially troubled waters. A loss Saturday would give Notre Dame its first 1-3 start since a 4-8 finish in 2016. A win would put the Irish back at .500 and give them another confidence boost before playing three ranked teams — No. 19 BYU, No. 5 Clemson and No. 7 Southern California — later in the season.
The most glaring problem has been the struggling offense, which ranks No. 114 in total yards (300.3 per game) and No. 115 in scoring (18.3 points). North Carolina, meanwhile, has been outscoring opponents from the Group of Five or the Football Championship Subdivision while their defense has struggled mightily. It ranks No. 123 in total yards allowed (486.3) and 119th in scoring defense (37.7).
For Notre Dame, which rushed for a season-best 147 yards against Cal, squaring off against a run defense that allows 193 yards per game offers a chance to control the clock and limit possessions. The Tar Heels allowed Appalachian State to score 40 points — in the fourth quarter — in a two-point victory (63-61).
No surprise that North Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik spent last week’s bye seeking solutions.
“I think the communication has gotten better,” Chizik said. “I think to get a breather and go back and look at when you were playing poorly and why, and you put it all together and not just look at a single event or a single game, I think it’s pretty glaring. I feel really good in terms of the players seeing what we need to do a better job of collectively.”
Pyne looked like a first-time starter early against Cal. Then he cast aside those early-game miscues to complete 13 of his final 14 passes for 123 yards and two TDs, giving Freeman and the Irish hope that he can pick up where he left off.
“He’s a passionate dude,” Freeman said. “Sometimes that can almost be your biggest challenge as you look at the start of the game.”
Offensively, North Carolina has been virtually unstoppable. Second-year quarterback Drake Maye has thrown 11 touchdown passes and rushed for 146 yards and another score, helping the Tar Heels average 51.3 points so far.
Freeman knows the Irish defense must find a way to replicate the way it played the first three quarters at Ohio State in the season opener, when Notre Dame led at halftime.
“They’re going to go at different tempos and they’re going to make you get lined up fast,” Freeman said. “We have to be able to control the ball, but we have to score some points. I don’t expect it to be a 10-7 game in the third quarter like it was at Ohio State. This is going to be a game where we’re going to have to score some points and limit them defensively.”
Notre Dame (1-2) at North Carolina (3-0), Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
Line: North Carolina by 1 1/2, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Series record: Notre Dame leads 20-2.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
North Carolina can improve to 4-0 for the first time since 1997, when Mack Brown was closing his first stint with the program. The Tar Heels have one of the nation’s top offenses and worst defenses entering the latest matchup of a series where they’ve rarely had success. The Fighting Irish are coming off the first win for coach Marcus Freeman by beating California after an 0-2 start. They started the year at No. 5 in the AP Top 25 poll.
Notre Dame’s defense against North Carolina’s offense. The Fighting Irish have held three opponents to 21.3 points and 351.7 yards per game. That unit will face a stiff test from the Tar Heels, who have opened the season in a high-scoring sprint. The Tar Heels are fourth in Bowl Subdivision ranks in scoring offense (51.3) and fifth in total offense (547.3 yards) behind second-year passer Drake Maye.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Notre Dame: QB Drew Pyne. The third-year passer threw for 150 yards and two touchdowns in the California win in his first career start. He took over when Tyler Buchner went down with a season-ending shoulder injury in the Marshall loss on Sept. 10.
UNC: WR Josh Downs. Downs was one of the nation’s top receivers last year and had two touchdowns in the season-opening win against Florida A&M, but he has missed the past two games due to injury. He is practicing and could return against the Irish.
FACTS & FIGURES
The Tar Heels are converting 56.4% of their third-down chances, good for seventh in the FBS ranks. … UNC’s wins in the series were a 12-7 victory in 1960 and 29-24 in 2008, though the latter was later vacated due to NCAA penalty. … This is the third straight year the teams are playing, with Notre Dame winning 44-34 at home last year and 31-17 in Chapel Hill in 2020 while playing a solo year as a full ACC member due to the COVID-19 pandemic. … Notre Dame has won 24 straight regular-season games against ACC teams dating to the 2017 season.