In the end it didn’t make much of a difference. Notre Dame probably still wins the game, but there was still the question: What was the thinking behind the play-calling before halftime for North Carolina?
The Tar Heels were trailing the Irish 14-7 late in the second quarter. Up until that point the UNC defense had played fairly well. The offense, not so much. After three consecutive incomplete passes from quarterback Tyler Newsome, the Irish were forced to punt, the fourth straight drive the Heels’ defense kept Notre Dame off the scoreboard. After a 43-yard punt from the Irish, North Carolina was pinned on its own 1-yard line with 38 seconds remaining.
Down by seven points, despite a less than average first half from the offense, the Tar Heels, who were set to receive the second-half kickoff, could have played it safe, taken a knee and gone into the locker room down just by seven.
None of the 57,000 in attendance would have blamed Larry Fedora for doing it that way. Instead, redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt, who struggled against the aggressive Notre Dame defense, stood 3 yards behind center Cam Dillard, deep in his own end zone. Surratt fired a pass in the direction of Anthony Ratliff-Williams on first down. The ball hit the turf and the Heels faced second-and-10, still backed up on their own 1.
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With 28 ticks remaining Surratt handed off to sophomore running back Jordan Brown. Brown never had a chance. Notre Dame’s massive defensive tackle Jerry Tillery (6-6, 306) beat UNC right guard R.J. Prince with an inside move and wrapped up Brown just as he received the handoff. Tillery had help from teammate Jay Hayes, as they combined to drop Brown in the end zone, resulting in a safety right before the half, giving the Irish a 16-7 lead.
Fedora took his shot on first down, thinking his receiver could beat the defender on a double move. When that didn’t work he just wanted to get out of the first half without a major mistake. That backfired.
“We were going to run a basic zone play, and we turned some guys loose,” Fedora said.
Dillard said the Irish “brought more than we could handle.”
Notre Dame used a line stunt that freed up Tillery, Dillard explained after the game.
The sequence was deflating to the Tar Heels, whose previous drive – 6 plays, 47 yards – resulted in a 25-yard touchdown pass from Surratt to Ratliff-Williams. That scoring drive was set up by an interception by UNC safety Myles Dorn, the first of two on the day for the sophomore. An interception to stop a drive, leading to a score, gave some life to the Heels. But poor execution before the half, instead of playing it safe and regrouping, cost the team what little momentum they had.
“To get that safety, that hurt,” Surratt said.
What hurt even more was Surratt’s interception on his first pass attempt of the second half. The ball was tipped, and picked off, by Irish defensive end Julian Okwara, and Notre Dame set up shop at the UNC 16. Six plays later a field goal made it 19-7 in favor of the visitors with 11:15 remaining in the third.
“Obviously we give them two points right before the half,” Fedora said. “The second half we come back, and we got what we wanted, but the defense makes a good play, bats the ball and picks it off.