CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Ian Book kept scrambling to buy time and help No. 2 Notre Dame put together multiple long touchdown drives. The Irish’s defense allowed little room for Sam Howell and No. 25 North Carolina’s potent offense to do the same.
Book threw for a score while the Fighting Irish defense locked down the Tar Heels for the final three quarters in a 31-17 victory on Friday. The win kept Notre Dame on course to earn a spot in the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game.
Both teams scored two first-quarter touchdowns and went into halftime tied at 17, only to see Notre Dame gradually take over in a performance coach Brian Kelly called “one of those road wins that really shows the mettle of your football team.”
“It felt like it was going to be a shootout in the beginning,” said Book, adding: “Our defense did an unbelievable job in the second half and gave us a lot of opportunities, and we were able to capitalize on it.”
Book threw for 279 yards and ran for 48 yards for the Fighting Irish (9-0, 8-0 ACC, No. 2 CFP), using his mobility and elusiveness to keep plays alive on a night when both offenses frequently faced long fields.
Receiver Ben Skowronek got Notre Dame its first lead with his 13-yard run around the right side midway through the third quarter. Kyren Williams ran for 124 yards — including a 47-yarder with about 5½ minutes left as the Irish burned clock.
Williams closed that drive with his second rushing TD, a clinching 1-yarder with 1:20 left that kept the Fighting Irish alone atop the ACC standings ahead of No. 4 Clemson and No. 10 Miami. He also had a 4-yard scoring catch in the first quarter after Book corralled a low snap and scrambled to buy time before finding him on the right side.
More impressive, though, was a defensive effort that forced Howell and the high-scoring Tar Heels to work for every gain after the opening quarter.
UNC (6-3, 6-3, No. 19 CFP) sprinted to touchdowns on its first two drives, but Notre Dame surrendered only one field goal from there. The Tar Heels came in averaging 43 points and 563 yards, yet they were unable to protect Howell nor open running lanes for a pair of backs averaging better than 100 yards rushing each in Javonte Williams and Michael Carter.
UNC finished with a season-low 298 yards while Howell — one of the national leaders in passing yardage and touchdowns — threw for just 211 yards and a score. He also ran for a touchdown.
“You can’t rush for 87 yards and have six sacks and beat anybody, much less a really, really good football team,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “So give Notre Dame credit. They’re really, really good. When they stepped up in the second half on defense, they really stepped up.”
Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish came in with a defense that ranked among the nation’s best by allowing just 85.1 yards rushing and 16.6 points. That unit came up big even after losing safety Kyle Hamilton to a first-half targeting call.
“They were scoring all over film, all over a bunch of teams,” linebacker Drew White said. “And so that just motivated our group as a unit to come into the game and just reinforce that we believe we’re the best defense in the country.”
UNC: Brown had said this game would be a measuring-stick opportunity for the Tar Heels. They got off to a fast start, but then struggled to sustain drives and finished with 173 yards after the first two scoring drives. That included being forced to punt on seven of eight drives before turning it over on downs in the final minute.
“They probably played more physical and harder than anybody since I’ve been here,” Howell said of Notre Dame’s defensive front.
The Fighting Irish are set to at least stand pat at No. 2, while the loss could knock UNC — which peaked at No. 5 in October — out of the poll for a second time.
The victory was Kelly’s 101st at Notre Dame in 11 seasons as coach, moving past Lou Holtz for second in school history to Knute Rockne’s 105.
Notre Dame improved to 29-3 with Book as a starter, matching a school record for victories with a starting quarterback. Brady Quinn, Ron Powlus and Tom Clements also started 29 victories for the Irish.
Moving the chains
Playing on the field where he made his first career start three years ago, Book guided Notre Dame to four touchdown drives of at least 75 yards behind a reconfigured line that had lost two starters to injuries.
UNC had nine penalties for 90 yards, including an offsides call as Notre Dame lined up for a fourth-and-1 to extend the drive that ended with Skowronek’s TD.
This is the first time North Carolina has lost a game by a two-possession margin since Brown returned for a second stint leading the Tar Heels last season. The Tar Heels’ previous eight losses were all by seven or fewer points.
Notre Dame: The Fighting Irish host one-win Syracuse on Dec. 5 in their home finale.
UNC: The Tar Heels host Western Carolina on Dec. 5, their lone nonconference game added to replace a cancelled Sept. 19 visit from Charlotte.