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Notre Dame Football

Notre Dame defense sticks Heels in mud

November 27, 2020

They had been battered for 14 points in dizzying fashion, and the only third-down forced on North Carolina's first two offensive possessions turned into the Tar Heels' first touchdown Friday afternoon inside Kenan Memoarial Stadium on the UNC campus.

This was not Notre Dame's defense.

Not the group that so wholly bottled up Clemson's running game earlier this month that the then-No. 1 Tigers basically abandoned Travis Etienne & Co.

Not the group that had entered Friday's matinee against No. 19 North Carolina having not yielded 100 rushing yards to any opponent in its previous quintet of games.

The Fighting Irish defense had not looked like this since … well, for as bad as the Irish were last year at Michigan, they still didn't quite look like this group dude through UNC's first two possessions.

Then, everything changed. Then, Notre Dame settled in. Even as Kyle Hamilton got ejected, players stepped up.

Defensive wunderkind Clark Lea made adjustments. Likewise, Lea unleashed on the Heels some things that Notre Dame had not previously shown from its defense.

The result? Notre Dame’s 15th-straight win, this one 31-17 on the road for a perfect 9-0 start to the 2020 campaign.

“I thought our game plan was outstanding,” Brian Kelly said. “Having a little bit of the time off and playing a prolific offense like North Carolina, it was a little bit like, I gave the analogy to our staff, coming out against a triple option. It was fast; we needed to acclimate a little bit.

“Once we did, we really liked our game plan. We thought that we dad some things that they hadn't seen before. We were able to take away some of their glance-reads off the (run-pass-option), which made it difficult for them in certain situations. And we were able to do it with moving our safeties around.”

Consider: Notre Dame moved its safeties around in a strategic manner early in the game, allowing Kyle Hamilton to roam and tap into his considerable defensive toolbox to tally six tackles before Hamilton was ejected for targeting.

Consider: North Carolina had eight players who entered the game with at least one catch of 33 yards or more, but had only one reception longer than 23 yards in this game.

Even as the Irish played the final 30-plus minutes without Hamilton and also saw Shaun Crawford get dinged up for a few moments in the first half.

“I thought the plan was outstanding and the players executed it extremely well,” Kelly said. “This was as well as our group played in the back-end. Even when Kyle went down, you know, Houston (Griffith) and DJ (Brown) and Shaun (Crawford) played extremely well and assignment-correct. Great communication. One of the huge things we felt like we needed to get better at was the communication back there and they did a great job.”

Consider: The Tar Heels on six second-half possessions tallied a scant 58 total yards, didn't score the game's final 31-plus minutes and had seven punts, a turnover on downs and a field goal in their final nine possessions that spanned the game's final 46 minutes, five seconds.

“They were scoring all over film all over a bunch of teams and so that just motivated our group as a unit to come into the game and just reinforce that we believe we're the best defense in the country,” said Irish linebacker Drew White, who had five tackles, including two for losses, and broke up a pass. “We came out not the way we wanted, but I thought we bounced back great. We came out second half, after we got the message across to all the guys, that, 'Hey, listen, we need to step up. This isn't our standard of football.'

“We came out second half guns blazing and were able to pitch a shutout.”

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