Atop ten matchup under the lights in South Bend — that is what the preseason rankings suggested this game would hold. However, North Carolina limped into South Bend after a disappointing 4-3 start to their season, finding themselves unranked and struggling to keep the season afloat. While North Carolina kept the game competitive, the Irish picked up their second win against the Tar Heels in as many seasons, 44-34.
Notre Dame and North Carolina opened up the game with successive punts. Kyren Williams then set up the Irish with great field position thanks to a 47-yard punt return. Then, the dual-quarterback offense was on display, as Jack Coan and Tyler Buchner both received snaps en route to a seven-yard touchdown pass from Buchner to Avery Davis for the first score of the game.
Sam Howell and the North Carolina offense responded swiftly. A 41-yard pass down to the Notre Dame six yard line set up a three-yard rushing touchdown to tie the score at seven. After a Notre Dame field goal made it 10-7 Irish, North Carolina drove for nearly seven minutes. Isaiah Foskey sacked Howell on third and goal, and the defense held the Tar Heels to a field goal, once again returning the game to a stalemate.
Notre Dame then responded with a quick two-minute drive culminating in a 21-yard touchdown pass to Kevin Austin Jr. The defense then held North Carolina to a field goal and took a 17-13 lead into the half.
North Carolina’s start to the second half showed they would not go down easily. After driving to midfield, running back Ty Chandler torched the Irish defense for a 53-yard touchdown run to take a 20-17 lead. This play was rather baffling for the Irish, who failed to get a hand on Chandler at any point during the play.
It was up to the Notre Dame offense to respond, and they did so swiftly. In only three plays, the Irish found the endzone and reclaimed a 24-20 lead. The most surprising play of the drive was the touchdown in which Coan, a quarterback not known for his running ability, escaped the pocket and ran 21 yards for the score. This was Coan’s longest run of the season, and one of his only two rushing touchdowns of the year.
The Irish defense found its feet again, forcing a quick three and out. Notre Dame capitalized on this with an 11 play, 81-yard touchdown drive that widened the lead to two scores, 31-20. However, this cushion did not last long, as North Carolina responded with a touchdown drive of their own to cut the lead to four. The drive concluded with another head-scratching play for the Irish defense. North Carolina ran a fake screen pass that froze both cornerbacks near the line of scrimmage, allowing UNC wide receiver Antoine Green to slip behind and run an unchallenged vertical where Howell found him wide open for the score.
The best play of the game, and possibly one of the best of Notre Dame’s season, came two possessions later. The score held at 31-27, and the Irish took over at their own nine yard line. On the first play from scrimmage, running back Kyren Williams dashed 91 yards for an Irish touchdown. The play call was not flashy: a handoff from the shotgun formation. Williams immediately had Tar Heels on him as he attempted to run right, and one made contact with him six yards behind the line of scrimmage. He shrugged the defender off and ran left, stiff arming another Tar Heel defender to gain the edge. From there, Williams showcased his breakaway speed as he raced to the end zone with four defenders in pursuit. Williams was untouchable, and this highlight reel play gave the Irish a 38-27 lead.
An interception by DJ Brown on the very next play seemed to seal the win. However, the Irish were forced to settle for a field goal on the ensuing possession. Afterwards, North Carolina scored a touchdown on another poor defensive play by the Irish that let quarterback Sam Howell scramble 31 yards for the score.
With the lead cut to 41-34, the Irish offense needed to respond. They did so with a 13-play drive that ate up nearly six minutes of clock and led to a field goal, giving the Irish another two possession lead. The defense saw the final few plays out, and the Irish won 44-34.
While this was not the marquee matchup it was billed at the start of the season, it still was an entertaining game with much scoring and highlight reel plays. The defense made some head-scratching mistakes, but they stopped when needed, and the offense fired on all cylinders to catapult the Irish to a record of 7-1.