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Notre Dame Football

High Degree of Difficulty: The Notre Dame Defense Prepares for Prolific UNC Offense

September 21, 2022
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After three games, North Carolina is averaging 51.3 points per game, which equates to the fourth-highest scoring offense in college football. 

The Tar Heels’ per-game production nearly matches Notre Dame’s season total of 54 points.

Since Mack Brown returned to Chapel Hill in 2019, North Carolina has been led by its offense. The Tar Heels have consistently scored in the mid-30s or higher. Prior to this season, the Tar Heel’s offense peaked in 2020, averaging 41.7 points per game. That was good for the No. 9 scoring offense that season.

During that time, Phil Longo served as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. 

Longo and Golden actually first met 25 years ago when Golden was a linebacker’s coach at Boston College. At the time, Longo was the head coach at a New Jersey high school, and he reached out to Golden to ask questions about installing a 3-4 defense. 

According to the News & Observer, the pair spent some time getting to know one another before their coaching careers continued down their own separate paths. 

"I do remember him from back in the day. I'm really happy for him,” said Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden. “He's done a great job. It's definitely his blueprint. It's a very, very unique offense. If I were looking on the outside, I'd be like, 'Wow, I really like the things he's done with it.'”

Dating back to 2019, Longo has had a dynamic quarterback to work with.  It started with Sam Howell, a three-year starter who the Washington Commanders selected in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL Draft. 

This fall, redshirt freshman Drake Maye stepped in and was immediately given the opportunity to get his feet wet against Group of Five and FCS opponents. 

In his first three starts, he’s completed 72 of 97 passes (74.2 percent) for 930 yards and just one interception.

“I'm watching the film of Sam last year. Then I'm juxtaposing that with watching Maye and you could see a lot of similarities in what they're asking him to do,” Golden said. “I don't think it's a big difference, and they've had some time to settle in here."

He also leads college football in touchdown passes of 20 yards or more.

“He's a perfect fit for the system that they're employing, and I think he's done a great job,” Golden said. “You can't ask him to do much more. They scored a heck of a lot of points, and he's doing a great job distributing the ball. He can beat you with his arm or his legs."

The North Carolina pass game should also get a boost with the return of junior wide receiver Josh Downs, a second-team preseason AP All-American. He suffered an ankle injury in week zero against FCS-opponent Florida A&M but still made 9 catches for 78 yards and two touchdowns. 

He missed the following two games, and the Tar Heels were off last weekend. Notre Dame expects Downs to play on Saturday. 

In 2021, Downs caught 101 passes for 1,335 yards and eight touchdowns. That includes a 10-catch, 142-yard performance against Notre Dame.

“He's a talent,” Golden said. “He runs after the catch, really changes his tempo downfield really well. Sometimes it's hard to get a beat on the route that he's running. I think he's a very crafty receiver and explosive with the ball.”

Like Howell before him, Maye is a capable and willing runner. In his three starts, he’s carried the ball 26 times for 146 yards and a touchdown.

Because of Maye’s diverse set of abilities, Longo can employ an offensive scheme that’s difficult to matchup with.

“He's got a bunch of different things in there that really go together well, whether it's the quarterback, the boot flash game, counter series,” Golden said. “He's got the screen game. He's got the quarterback draw. 

“He's got a lot of little things that really challenge you that we would call high-degree-of-difficulty plays that you've got to be ready for. It’s a credit to him and the offensive staff for putting that together. It's a great challenge."

For Notre Dame to win its second game of the season on Saturday, the Irish defensive line must once again create havoc in order to slow down North Carolina’s high-powered offense. 

Only the defensive line must also play with greater discipline.

Against Cal, Notre Dame sacked quarterback Jack Plummer on six occasions and pressured him 27 times, per Pro Football Focus. 

But the integrity of Notre Dame’s rush lanes broke down too often against the Golden Bears, which allowed Plummer to run for big gains on second and third down. 

"We were able to get home and get some of those sacks, so I think that would be the biggest thing,” Golden said. “We let them out too many times early in the game and that hurt us. It was a lot of rushing yards for nothing. We had good coverage. All we have to do is keep them in the pocket. 

“It’s a good learning lesson for everybody. Obviously, the stakes are higher this week. Now we’ll get a guy that truly is a runner.”

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