It took 3 games for Marcus Freeman to pick up his 1st win as Notre Dame’s head coach.

It took 4 games for the Fighting Irish to find an offense in Freeman’s 1st full season.

Both events were significant, but the 2nd might be season-saving.

With Drew Pyne under center for the 2nd week following the season-ending injury to starter Tyler Buchner, Notre Dame finally looked crisp on offense. The Fighting Irish gained 576 yards with nearly perfect balance (289 passing, 287 rushing) Saturday afternoon during a 45-32 victory over North Carolina at a soldout Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C. Pyne threw 3 touchdown passes in the victory, all of which came as the Fighting Irish built an insurmountable 38-14 lead before holding on to win by 13 points. There were no “Tommy Rees lights Pyne up from the booth” hard coaching moments Saturday. There were just beautiful touchdown passes.

Pyne’s performance, which also didn’t include a turnover, suggests the overarching goals slowly might be changing for a Notre Dame team that started 0-2 and lost its starting quarterback before the 2nd defeat ended. The Notre Dame defense, which despite giving up 32 points Saturday limited an explosive North Carolina offense to just 367 yards, is going to play winning football on most Saturdays. Maybe Notre Dame’s offense is ready to join in.

“Drew makes the right decisions,” coach Freeman said following the victory. “It’s never a decision-making issue. It’s the execution. And early in the game last week, he wasn’t executing the way he would want or we would want. But today, again, he continued to make good decisions. But he executed and put the ball where it needed to be, and some guys made some plays.”

Guys making plays?

That’s new, too.

Most vitally, Notre Dame’s best playmakers showed up Saturday. Chris Tyree had his best game this season, gaining 80 yards rushing on 15 carries and adding a touchdown. After touching the ball just 12 times during the season’s opening 2 games, Tyree has tallied 21 touches per game over the past 2, and he eclipsed 100 total yards rushing and receiving Saturday for a 2nd consecutive week.

Lorenzo Styles Jr., the best downfield threat the Notre Dame passing game has, also had himself an afternoon. Styles caught 5 of his 6 targets for 69 yards and a touchdown, providing All-American tight end Michael Mayer (7 catches, 88 yards, 1 touchdown) the type of cover he needs downfield to dominate between the hashmarks and as an intermediate receiver.

Finally, running back Audric Estime had by far his best game, rushing for 134 yards at a 7.9 yards per carry clip and punishing the Tar Heels defense on every carry.

Estime’s 2 touchdowns matched his season total entering the game, and served notice that perhaps the Notre Dame offensive line finally was delivering on its preseason promise to be a strength of this team. The line did a tremendous job in pass protect as well, limiting North Carolina to just 7 pressures and 1 sack — and the sack came on a formation with no back help to block when Pyne simply held the ball too long. If this offensive line lives up to the preseason billing, a long winning streak isn’t out of the question.

Two weeks ago, with Notre Dame 0-2, it was tough to look at the schedule and see anything much beyond 7-5. Now, with Pyne and the offense balanced and playmakers finally being loosed from their moorings, the Fighting Irish can dream of 9 wins, and with it, a potential backdoor invite to the New Year’s Six. Of the remaining teams on the schedule, only Clemson seems too tall a hurdle for this team to leap, and with Ohio State steamrolling all in its path, Notre Dame has to have the quiet confidence to know its defense can compete with anyone, including Clemson and Lincoln Riley’s Southern California.

“We have to look at those tough losses as somehow, some way being a positive, and continue to grow and continue to get better,” Freeman said after the latest win. “That’s what I keep saying. We can’t only just focus on the outcome of the game. And we know that’s how we’re judged, right? Wins and losses. We get that. But focusing on that and remembering that is how we get better.”

Notre Dame — and its young head coach — are getting better. Now they’ll get a well-deserved bye week to do more of that before a tough game against BYU in Las Vegas.

It’s hard, sometimes, especially when you make the wrong kind of school history and start 0-4 as a head coach, to remember this is Year 1 under Freeman, and as good as Brian Kelly’s tenure was, the Fighting Irish were left with questions at receiver, a new quarterback, and a lack of depth in the secondary as Kelly departed for LSU.

Now, with Pyne living his dream as Notre Dame’s starting quarterback, playmakers beginning to emerge, and a top -20 defense, the Fighting Irish are looking like the Fighting Irish again. What a difference 2 weeks can make in the small, reactionary world of September college football.