For every jab thrown by North Carolina, Notre Dame had a cross.
Then North Carolina ran out of gas. The Tar Heels’ hands fell to their side. Superstar quarterback Sam Howell suddenly looked human as linebackers flooded the passing lanes, and the pass rush flashed like a blinding light across his periphery.
No. 2 Notre Dame (9-0), after delivering body shot after body shot in the second half, finally delivered the uppercut in the middle of forcing five straight punts on possessions resulting in only 54 yards in the second half. North Carolina (6-3) staggered offensively for the first time this season, and then running back Kyren Williams blew the tar off their heels with a 47-yard run with 5:52 remaining.
The Fighting Irish leaned on their behemoths in the trench to secure a win that never quite seemed in danger thanks to one of their best defensive performances of the season. Yes, the Tar Heels were within only one possession most of the second half, but with the Irish playing defense this good at such a consistent rate, was there really much concern?
North Carolina finished with only 298 yards, including 78 in the second half. It was the first time in 17 games the Tar Heels’ Air Raid finished below 400 yards.
Middle linebacker Drew White was fantastic. On his final five plays, he forced two incomplete passes and was involved in tackles that resulted in minus-13 yards. White stopped Howell on second-and-10, and then Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa and Marist Liufau combined to sack him and force a drive-ending punt with 5:52 remaining.
No biggie, right? Just another play. Move on. Get the ball back. There is still time for this offense, which had out-scored the previous eight opponents by 64 points in the fourth quarter, to complete the comeback.
Nearly 6 minutes may seem like an eternity facing North Carolina’s Air Raid, but not when the other team has a championship-caliber quarterback and offensive line that can melt the clock. The Irish wore out the Tar Heels with an eight-play, 89-yard drive to milk all but 80 seconds off the game clock and grab a 14-point lead. Williams rushed for 67 yards and the touchdown on the possession.
Notre Dame did what UNC could not: run the ball. Williams finished with a game-high 124 yards and two touchdowns. The Tar Heels averaged only 3.9 yards per rush.
The fast-paced Tar Heels snapped the ball only 57 times on offense. Seven of eight possessions in the second half ended with a punt.
“One of those road wins that really shows the mettle of your football team,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said.
Quarterback Ian Book, who was pushed out of the pocket many times and made marvelous throws and even painted over the ridiculously-bad strokes with a flick of his brush — one such decision resulted in a high-arcing flip on a dangerous pass as he was tackled at a crucial moment in the second half. Like most of the season, the luck was on the Irish’s side. But it’s those type of moments that have become commonplace for Notre Dame. The close calls and big plays at just the right time is not a sign of weakness. No, Notre Dame plays like a championship team in championship moments — and that’s all that matters.
Whether it was Book delivering the Irish the biggest win in college football this season against Clemson or the quarterback hitting his tight ends down field, scrambling for more time and making backyard-football plays seem like part of the playbook against North Carolina, the quarterback has emerged as one of the nation’s best. He threw for 279 yards and a touchdown while leading the Irish to out-gain UNC 478-298. Despite his penchant for quick-fire decisions that sometimes make fans wince, he hasn’t thrown an interception since the season opener Sept. 12 against Duke.
“He’s got a little chip on his shoulder as well and he won the matchup tonight,” Kelly said. “He’s a guy that makes plays and made a great play in that situation.”
The Irish might also be the nation’s best team, even if they are not the flashiest on offense or the most dominant defense.
Perhaps the mundane in a time when we’re so accustomed to focusing our eyeballs and praise on high-scoring offenses and record-breaking quarterbacks is being overlooked, but it would be a mistake to forget about the Irish when the College Football Playoff’s committee has a decision to make after the ACC Championship Game.
Notre Dame is not ordinary. Book is now 29-3 as the starter, tying him for the most wins by an Irish quarterback in school history. Kelly has 101 wins, the second-most in school history. A rematch against Clemson looms large on the horizon, but even with a loss there, shouldn’t Notre Dame still be considered as a playoff participant?
In a season of confusion and analysts labeling teams as this or that, maybe it’s time to train our eyes to the calmer waters. Notre Dame seems to be providing us a safe harbor, even when things seem rough at times on the college football landscape.
Brandon Marcello is a national college football reporter for 247Sports. You can follow him on Twitter (@bmarcello).