Rakes Report #157: Only you know how I loathe Tobacco Road (The North Carolina Review)

~optional musical accompaniment~

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1) To say the situation felt perilous after Kyle Hamilton was ejected near the end of the first half would be an understatement. It was a nightmare drive for the Irish defense, as they allowed a conversion on 3rd and 18 then 3rd and 20 while losing their wunderkind lynchpin in the secondary due to an unfortunate but legitimate targeting. The defense held to force a field goal, but with Carolina getting the ball to start the second half it felt like it was going to be One Of Those Days, a Black Friday road game against a talented team that had underachieved but was going to have its big moment with a second-year coach at Notre Dame’s expense. We went into halftime thinking the Tar Heels might run away in the final 30 minutes but instead Clark Lea’s lads buckled down and their hosts didn’t have a single third down conversion after the break. For the third time this season Notre Dame was a trendy upset pick and for the third time they responded by winning by multiple touchdowns. Absolute and total domination to get to 9-0 and clear the last major regular season hurdle.

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2) 125 yards on the first two Carolina possessions and then 173 the rest of the way, including having only a single drive eclipse 20 yards in the second half and none achieving more than 30. They barely averaged over three yards per snap following the break, and after coming in averaging over 600 yards per game over their last six they couldn’t crack 300. The vaunted Tar Heel running game couldn’t muster 100 yards, while Fourth Quarter Sam Howell passed for 36 yards and got sacked a bunch. North Carolina came into this game with their offense ranked 4th in the SP+ and 6th in the FEI, or if you prefer cruder stats, they were 4th in total offense and 10th in points per game. After delivering their opening salvo when Howell was running for his life making plays and the tailbacks were slipping tackles, the Irish defense tightened things up and the Heels barely made a dent. As impressive a performance as we’ve seen in college football this season.

(Let’s list North Carolina’s second half drives for the sake of posterity:

4 plays, 11 yards

3 plays, 5 yards

4 plays, 22 yards

3 plays, 7 yards

7 plays, 9 yards

4 plays, 4 yards)

Where to even start as we hand out laurels? Drew White got the game ball, and deservedly so, as he led the front-seven charge that short-circuited the Tar Heel attack, pitching in two tackles for loss and a pass batted away. Phil Longo’s offense is a prolific RPO system with great running backs complemented by a pretty deep ball plus killer slants and the Irish defense responded by just hitting it with a hammer over and over again until it was reduced to shards. This was the best game of Marist Liufau’s young career by a mile*, and Bo Bauer continued his fine season, baiting and bashing Howell. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah led the team in tackles, naturally. Some of the previews for this game questioned whether the Irish rush defense that had shut down Travis Etienne, Javian Hawkins, Breece Hall and A.J. Dillon over its current win streak was legit but I think that matter is now settled.

* Testament to Lea that Liufau, Simon and Kiser have all had standout games this season rotating through the buck linebacker position.

The defensive line was incredible. MTA was a beast, again, and Ade Ogundeji had two sacks and maybe made the play of the game tracking down Javonte Williams on a key third down. Daelin Hayes and Justin Ademilola were presences on the edge, while Isaiah Foskey showed he’s more than just a pass rusher. The secondary gave up a couple of big plays early but they buttressed the front seven by tightening up coverage, with Nick McCloud’s hatred of the powder blue powering things and Clarence Lewis continuing his steady freshman year. Houston Griffith and D.J. Brown didn’t fill up the stat sheet, but Howell was unable to exploit them for an entire half of football and that’s good enough for me.

(A quick note on Lea: There was a lot of “Pay Clark Lea whatever he wants” after the game and even more on Sunday when Vanderbilt fired Derek Mason, and yes, by all means, do that, but if Lea wants the challenge of being a head coach somewhere and leaves on good terms to pursue that, it is what it is. Objectively, the Vanderbilt job is Not Good but when you start talking about hometowns and alma maters things get murky. Last time the job was open the Commodores hired a defensive coordinator with no head coaching experience so maybe this time they go with an offense-first sitting head coach? We’ll see. Whenever Lea leaves, should it be in the coming weeks or hopefully far into the future, let’s try our best to keep it together because this is usually how it goes with the top coordinators, with the Venables and Fosters of the world serving as exceptions.)

3) Considering they were replacing two offensive linemen and going against a motivated Tar Heel team that was playing in its Super Bowl, the offense did what it needed to do. After the two North Carolina first quarter scores, Ian Book and company responded immediately to keep things from getting out of hand. When the hosts took the lead with a late field goal in the second quarter, Book put on a 70-second drive to tie the game. (I have to say, there are so many bad hurry-up offenses in college football and I really appreciate that Notre Dame’s isn’t one of them.) In sum, I’m never going to complain about seven yards per play and zero turnovers in a two touchdown-win.

Without the knowledge the Carolina offense was going to be totally shut down, I was obviously wishing the Irish had been able to accrue a two-score lead earlier in the second half, but I really appreciated how they finally put the game away*: 8 plays and 89 yards, with 67 of them coming from Kyren Williams, who notched another three touchdowns, 144 yards from scrimmage and a shoutout from LeBron James, which is a decent afternoon as far as they go. (This was after Notre Dame’s go-ahead third quarter drive was a casual 13-play, 97-yard decimation.)

* I mean, of course, a big third-down throw to George Takacs.

Book had 327 yards of offense, cleaning up some errors from his new center and adding a push pass third down conversion to Michael Mayer that will go on his career highlight reel. On Notre Dame’s first two scoring drives, Book had rushes of 18 and 33 in addition to a 43-yard pass to Javon McKinley. He had another 53-yard pass to McKinley on the drive that ended in a missed chip shot field goal and hey guess what Javon McKinley is just a really good college receiver now. Bennett Skowronek didn’t have any big plays in the passing game but he was kind enough to chip in a rushing touchdown on a lovely little call from Tommy Rees, while Tommy Tremble was again just straight-up murdering people for sport. While this was a quiet day for Avery Davis, it was nice to see Joe Wilkins pop a little bit, drawing a pass interference flag in addition to a pair of catches. The biggest difference between Notre Dame and other top contenders is passing game upside so any bit of additional juice we can wring out of it is huge.

In his first game replacing Jarrett Patterson at center, Zeke Correll had some adventurous snaps but also helped close things out on the final touchdown drive. A banged-up Josh Lugg wasn’t crisp at right guard, but Tommy Kraemer’s appendectomy-fueled absence should be over by the ACC Championship Game if not the December 12 visit to Winston-Salem* and hopefully Lugg can get healthier as well. During his tenure Jeff Quinn has repeatedly dealt with key injuries (Alex Bars in 2018, Robert Hainsey and Kraemer last year), and it’s commendable how well the line has stepped up. Next year he’ll have a major challenge rebuilding but Quinn came into 2020 with a veteran squad and responded by putting together a Joe Moore Award favorite.

* If this game happens: Wake has already canceled this Saturday’s contest against Miami due to COVID issues, so it’s possible they’re not cleared up in time to play the Irish. You’ll remember that the game was originally scheduled for September but was moved due to Notre Dame’s own outbreak, allowing Father Jenkins and a coterie of Irish faculty members to use that open Saturday to attend a super-spreader event.

A lot of time was spent, justifiably, praising Lea after this game but let’s not overlook Rees: Coming into this season, the plan was for Kevin Austin and Braden Lenzy to lead the receiving corps, and they have 7 combined catches. For the last few years, I’ve heard how bad Quinn is at his job, then for most of September and October I heard how bad Book was and how quarterbacks always regress and oh also there weren’t any capable receivers on this team. Well, Rees went ahead and put together a top-ten offense anyway, and now the incoming classes are loaded with more talent on both the lines and skill positions and it seems like Tommy has the potential to keep things rolling.

4) Shoutout Jay Bramblett, who had a couple really nice punts. Not Doerer’s finest day, but he still hasn’t missed a field goal that actually mattered. Loved Kelly lining the offense up on fourth and short to draw the offsides on the go-ahead touchdown drive, particularly because it sent Chris Fowler into a fit. Was very kind of Mack Brown to sit on his timeouts and expedite the inevitable and as I mentioned before the fact Notre Dame has such a capable hurry-up offense is a real treat, allowing the Irish to make it into the break tied instead of down three. That was also the first time since Brown took over last year that the Heels lost by more than a touchdown. And while we’re on Mack, here are some of his postgame comments.

"And let me say at the same time, Ian was as good tonight as anybody I've ever seen,” said the guy who coached Vince Young. “We couldn't tackle him. I mean, we harassed him. We had people around him, there could have been six sacks. We could not get him on the ground. And then he made some unbelievable plays on third down. I don't know if he's in the Heisman race or not, but he should be. His record is 29-3, he's fast, he's quick, he's accurate, he's smart. He's not going to do things to get his team beat. But I was so impressed with him tonight. I was impressed with him as much as any quarterback I've seen."

5) Winning Is Hard/Schadenfreude Round Up: If you saw Northwestern sitting at No. 8 in the first playoff ranking and said to yourself “Well, that seems wrong,” your instincts were correct, because they lost at Sparty and we thankfully can move on from the charade that they’re a playoff contender. This season Michigan State has lost to Rutgers but handed Michigan and Northwestern their first losses so honestly pretty good tradeoff? Oregon was the Pac-12’s best playoff hope and was a two-touchdown favorite at Oregon State, but they blew a double-digit second half lead and fell to the Beavers, Mario Cristobal’s vaunted defensive line giving up 269 yards rushing. The conference’s slim playoff chances now rely on…Clay Helton, I guess? Karl Dorrell? Good luck.

Tom Herman also had a double-digit second half lead against Iowa State, but a series of curious decisions and a brutal sack taken by a senior quarterback cost them the game and a chance at the Big 12. Remember how much of a sure thing Herman was when he was hired at the flagship institution of one of the most talent-rich states in the nation? He’s 30-18 in Austin, and his lone 10-win season came with four losses. Related: Matt Campbell back?! It’s fun to see the same Cyclone team Notre Dame nonchalantly tossed off a bridge in Orlando basically lock up a spot in the conference title game.

We’ve come a long way without mentioning that Michigan lost at home to 0-5 Penn State, because I wanted to save you a little treat. Purdue lost to Rutgers and we have some questions for Jeff Brohm. Scott Satterfield’s Louisville roster has been decimated by COVID and opt outs but they lost to Boston College and are now 3-7. Cal lost at home to Stanford due to a mixed extra point. Utah blew a 21-0 lead against Washington. Florida trailed Kentucky late into the first half. Oh, and Nebraska lost again, but that’s barely worth noting at this point, just as Kevin Sumlin’s 10th straight loss at Arizona is not super surprising.

6) It was extremely unfair for North Carolina to come into this game with losses to a dreadful Florida State team and average Virginia squad. It took the pressure off a preseason ACC dark horse that climbed as high as No. 5 in the polls and allowed them to take a swing at Notre Dame as the free-and-loose spoiler and not an equal also trying to earn their sport in the ACC title game. Still, the Irish responded to a motivated, talented opponent and vanquished them for their 33rd win in their last 36 games.

Notre Dame will eventually lose as a favorite (which they haven’t done since 2017) and lose at home (also 2017) and lose to an unranked team (not since 2016) and just lose in general (a nation’s best 15 wins in a row) but the current run has been a real joy. Both the offense and defense are among the best in the nation, achieving their goals through concentrated violence along the lines and with splashes of athleticism. Book is already becoming a minor legend and will have an opportunity in the coming weeks to increase the magnitude of his legacy. The most you can hope for as a sports fan is to get to root for likable players who bust their ass and win more than they lose and that’s been a bar our favorite team has easily cleared these last few years. I hope you’re enjoying every second of it.

Here’s where we stand: Notre Dame is a massive favorite on Saturday, and if they win against the Orange, they’ll clinch a spot in the ACC Championship Game. (I don’t think it is hyperbole to state that a loss against this Syracuse team might be the worst defeat in the history of the program, so don’t do that.) It would also mark the fourth consecutive season with at least ten wins, and fifth such season in the last six years. If they are able to play and win at Wake Forest, that would make their path to the playoff rather wide, giving the Irish the opportunity to become just the fifth team (following Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Oklahoma) to make multiple appearances in the field, which is an impressive accomplishment that would further solidify their position as one of the best in college football. Beating Clemson for a second time to win the ACC title will be a difficult challenge, but the Irish are capable of achieving it and pulling off the “Step into a conference for one year, win its trophy, return to independence” dream.

It’s nice that Notre Dame is receiving even more national praise after this latest win, but we’ve known for a while that this is a good team. Still, if making believers of pundits means more recruits taking a look at the program then by all means let’s continue impressing the bandwagon supporters by blowing Syracuse and Wake Forest to hell and giving Clemson all they can handle. This has been a bizarre season and I’m exceptionally proud of the work this Irish team has done despite the world burning around them. Keep going.

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