Penalties and defensive woes haunt UNC football in loss to Notre Dame

SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - OCTOBER 30: Josh Downs #11 of the North Carolina Tar Heels catches a pass during the first quarter in the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on October 30, 2021 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images)
SOUTH BEND, INDIANA - OCTOBER 30: Josh Downs #11 of the North Carolina Tar Heels catches a pass during the first quarter in the game against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish at Notre Dame Stadium on October 30, 2021 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Justin Casterline/Getty Images) /

The UNC football program could not pull off the upset in South Bend, as some costly mistakes and defensive woes proved to be the difference.

819. 34. 838. Final. 44

Some things never change.

On the night before Halloween, the UNC football program was haunted by some of the same issues that they’ve experienced all season, as they suffered a 44-34 loss to No. 11 Notre Dame.

Crucial mistakes and defensive struggles were the common denominator in this game, as both played critical roles in the program’s fourth loss of the season.

Similar to last year’s contest, the Tar Heels kept the game close heading into the fourth quarter. However, there were a few points in the game where North Carolina gave the Fighting Irish extra opportunities to work with.

Notre Dame got on the board first, taking a quick 7-0 lead. The Tar Heels began driving down the field at the end of the first quarter, and tied up the ball game right away at the start of the second quarter on Ty Chandler’s first score of the contest.

The back-and-forth continued, as the Fighting Irish kicked a field goal on their ensuing drive. Looking to respond once again, North Carolina went on a long drive that appeared to be over once Sam Howell scrambled into the end zone. However, this is where the crucial mistakes began to hurt the Tar Heels.

A holding penalty wiped the touchdown off the board, and North Carolina was ultimately forced to settle for a field goal. With Norte Dame’s offense re-taking the field, it was the Tar Heel defense’s turn to make a critical mistake of their own.

Notre Dame was facing fourth down, and elected to go for it. Jack Coan’s initial pass was ruled incomplete, but a face mask penalty against Tre Morrison — which was away from the ball — was called, giving the Fighting Irish a new set of downs.

Of course, the penalty would result in seven more points for Brian Kelly’s team. They ended up taking a 17-13 lead into halftime, but you could easily make the case that the score would’ve been different if it wasn’t for the critical mistakes made by the Tar Heels.

After they elected to defer until the second half, Mack Brown’s squad had a great opportunity to capitalize right out of the gate. Just a minute and 33 seconds into the half, Ty Chandler found a hole for a 53-yard score to give the Tar Heels their first lead of the night. But hopefully you didn’t blink or walk away to get a snack or drink, because the lead certainly didn’t last long.

On their ensuing drive, it took Notre Dame just three plays and 58 seconds to find the end zone once again. After such a momentum-shifting type of drive from the UNC offense, it was the defense that gave the momentum right back to the Fighting Irish.

Notre Dame ended up scoring on their following drive as well, as they put up 31 points on the Tar Heels’ defense in just six total drives. Down by 11 points, it looked as if the Fighting Irish were ready to take full control of the game, but Sam Howell and company had other plans.

Howell was able to connect with Antoine Green for a 33-yard score to put North Carolina down by four. But in another scenario where the offense provided hope, the defense took the hope right away.

On the first play of their drive, it looked as if the Tar Heels’ defense had Notre Dame running back Kyren Williams stuffed in the backfield for a loss. However, Williams escaped and bolted his way 91 yards down the sideline for a score. We thought this was the “dagger” of the game, but at that point, we didn’t know what would happen on the Tar Heels’ following offensive possession.

Like most instances this season, the hope was that the offense could pick up the defensive unit once again. However, Howell responded by throwing an interception on the first play of the ensuing drive, which served as the ultimate dagger in the Tar Heels’ comeback trail.

It seems as if the storyline is the same in each of the Tar Heels’ losses. The offense puts up points, but the defense still can not get it together. For a unit that we had so much expectations for, it’s really disappointing seeing the performances they put together each and every week (especially coming off a bye week in which they had two weeks to prepare for this Notre Dame offense).

As this defensive unit has certainly gotten worse over the last two seasons, you have to wonder when changes will be made in Chapel Hill. At this point, I’d be surprised if this coaching staff lasts as it is through the remainder of the season, given the struggles that we’ve all witnessed on a weekly basis.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t get much easier for the UNC football program over the next two weeks. The Tar Heels will host Wake Forest next week, and travel to Pittsburgh the following week, marking three consecutive games in which they could possibly take on top 25 opponents.

Regardless of the rest of the season at this rate, the first eight games of the season have been brutally disappointing. It’s amazing how just a few months ago, this same team was often mentioned amongst the best teams in the nation, and many felt they would possibly make a run toward a College Football Playoff berth.

In a year in which the Tar Heels could’ve capitalized in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the team has simply not lived up to the hype and expectations.

Game Notes

-Other than his costly interception, Howell was really good in primetime. The junior quarterback completed 24 of his 31 passes for 334 yards and a score, and added an additional 101 yards and and a rushing touchdown on the ground.

With his two scores, Howell took over sole possession of the program’s record for touchdowns responsible for. He also surpassed the 10,000 total yards mark, only needing 33 games to accomplish the feat.

-Howell’s top weapon, Josh Downs, also continued to impress, as he continued his streak of hauling in eight or more passes in every game this season. Downs finished with 10 receptions for a total of 142 yards, marking his fifth 100-yard receiving game in 2021.

-Ty Chandler was also solid in this one, as he rushed for 83 yards on 15 carries. With his two touchdowns, Chandler made some UNC football history, too:

-It’s well-known at this point that Downs is Howell’s top target in the pass game, but you have to give credit to the Tar Heels for spreading around the ball well in this game. Howell connected with eight different receivers, which definitely opened up some big play opportunities.

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