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One Foot Down Game Day Countdown: Notre Dame vs. North Carolina

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North Carolina makes its first trip to South Bend in 8 years this weekend.

Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

unc helmet

North Carolina (+17) at Notre Dame

Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend, Indiana

Kickoff: 3:30 PM ET

Television: NBC

Series: 16-2-0 Notre Dame

Here is the One Foot Down preview for this weekend's game against the Tar Heels of North Carolina.

5 Factoids

  • .889 Winning Percentage

Historically speaking this has been a very friendly series for the Fighting Irish. Although Notre Dame lost the last meeting back in 2008 the .889 winning percentage is the second best versus any opponent that the Irish have played at least 10 times. Only the 10-0-1 record against Illinois is better.

  • 9.6 Penalties Per Game

North Carolina has struggled mightily with penalties this season. They are coming off a game against Virginia Tech in which they were flagged 10 times and are averaging 9.6 penalties per game--121st in the nation. Only Oregon State and Texas Tech are averaging more penalties per game among the Power 5 conferences. On the flip side, the Irish have been a very disciplined team with only 4.2 penalties per game, good for 12th nationally.

  • 22 Combined Turnovers

North Carolina has played in some wacky games so far this season having committed 10 turnovers while gaining an additional 12 turnovers from their opponents. They've had one fumble returned for touchdown against them, two pick sixes by their defense, two pick sixes on their offense, and a pair of safeties against their offense. In addition, the Tar Heels started last week's game by fumbling on the first snap and giving the ball to Virginia Tech at the UNC 16-yard line from where the Hokies would take a quick 7-0 lead.

  • 92nd & 102nd Big Play Ability

Both the North Carolina and Notre Dame offenses' have struggled with big plays from scrimmage. The Tar Heels sit at 92nd nationally with just 8 plays of 30+ yards while the Irish are even worse at 102nd nationally and 7 plays. Both teams are 68th nationally with 23 plays of 20+ yards. Where the difference in this game comes in how each defense has been defending big plays. Notre Dame has allowed just 7 plays of 30+ yards (24th nationally) but North Carolina has given up 16 such plays (113th nationally) this season.

  • 37.97% 3rd Down Conversion

Notre Dame has been very good at moving the chains this year (47.44% on third down, 24th nationally) while the Tar Heels have not. North Carolina's 37.97% conversion rate on third down is 89th nationally and they are coming off a game against Virginia Tech in which they managed to convert just 2 of 13 opportunities.

4 Players to Watch

  • WR Ryan Switzer

I profiled Switzer during the off-season due to his great punt return ability and I'm sure PunterBro will be devoting plenty of time to him in his UNC special teams preview tomorrow. Switzer is a big part of the offense in his second season and is currently leading the Heels with 24 receptions. However, he's been limited to just 269 yards and without his 75-yard lone touchdown of the season he's sitting at a low 8.4 yards per catch. Switzer remains aggressive as ever in the punt return game leading the country with 21 returns already. Yet, he's been held in check for most of the season gaining 70 of his 103 yards in the first game against Liberty. Also, Switzer injured his hand against Virginia Tech and muffed a punt return with 3:12 left in the game down only 10, which effectively sealed the loss for UNC. He also fumbled (but didn't lose possession) another punt earlier in the year so keep an eye on his aggressiveness in concert with a possible banged up hand.

  • RB Elijah Hood

Last year quarterback Marquise Williams led North Carolina in rushing and he's doing the same in 2014. However, the Tar Heels did get a solid freshman season out of T.J. Logan, as well as sophomore Romar Morris and freshman Khris Francis getting in the action too. Those three backs combined for 1.065 yards on 225 carries with 10 touchdowns in 2013. Despite that returning experience, former Notre Dame verbal commit and true freshman Elijah Hood is currently leading all UNC running backs with 39 carries and 166 yards. Whether the backs get the ball on Saturday is another matter. Last week against Virginia Tech the quarterbacks got 20 out of the 29 carries while the backs combined for an appalling 15 yards with their 9 carries.

  • QB Marquise Williams or QB Mitch Trubisky

Redshirt junior Marquise Williams started the final 6 games for UNC last year after Bryn Renner went down with injury. Williams went 5-1 in those games and was a big reason why a lot of folks believed the Tar Heels could move up in the ACC this season. However, this year head coach Larry Fedora has been playing redshirt freshman Mitch Trubisky extensively, putting him into the game on at least the third series of every single game. Trubinsky saw 8 series' against Liberty and then just 1 series against San Diego State but against the stronger opponents he played 5 series' (East Carolina), 3 series' (Clemson), and 2 series' (Virginia Tech). Trubinksy is averaging just 4.8 yards on 49 passing attempts and has already thrown 3 picks so we might not see a whole of him this weekend. Keep in mind, most UNC fans do not agree with Fedora's decision to keep playing the younger Trubinsky. Williams is a decent passer (1,083 yards, 61% accuracy, 9 TD, 4 INT) but is an even better athlete with 777 rushing yards (4.6 per carry) since the start of last year.

  • DT Nazair Jones

The redshirt freshman from Roanoke Rapids has been one of North Carolina's bright spots on defense this season. The former high 3-star recruit has packed on some weight and become a disruptive force from the tackle position. 9 out of his 10 tackles this season have come in the last 3 games and so have his 5 tackles for loss and 2 sacks.

3 Concerns

  • Keeping Williams in the Pocket

Marquise Williams is similar to Syracuse's Terrel Hunt in terms of athleticism, size, and running ability. For whatever reason the Orange didn't run Hunt as much against the Irish as in previous games. Williams is coming off a career-high 19 carries last week and has carried the ball 12+ times in 8 games throughout his career. The UNC running backs are only averaging 88.4 yards per game so containing Williams on the ground will be important this weekend.

  • Turnovers

They've been a factor over the last two games for Notre and prevented the Irish from blowing out an opponent two weeks ago and winning with more comfort last Saturday. UNC has done a good job forcing turnovers and that could play a big part in the game if Golson doesn't get his fumbling yips under control.

  • The Let Down Game

Everyone and their mother has been talking about this being a let down game since the schedule was finalized. Sandwiched in between Stanford and Florida State this has all the makings of a trap game. The fact that North Carolina came into the season with relatively high expectations and has faltered thus far also makes them easy to overlook. Luckily, Kelly mentioned during his presser that the team isn't as physically beat up from the Stanford game as they usually are.

2 Sides of the Line

The North Carolina offensive line has struggled this season, most especially in the run game, and is a little under-sized for a Power 5 program. At left tackle redshirt sophomore John Ferranto (6-5, 290) is in his first year as starter. Redshirt sophomore Caleb Peterson (6-5, 295) started 12 games at left guard in 2013 but missed the first 2 games this fall with an injury. In his place former JUCO recruit and redshirt junior Will Dancy (6-4, 305) got his first career starts but Peterson has been back in the lineup since Week 3. At center, true sophomore Lucas Crowley (6-3, 290) has made his first 5 starts in his career in 2014.

Redshirt junior Landon Turner (6-4, 315) is the most experienced lineman on the team with 17 starts coming into the season. However, he got banged up and missed the East Carolina and Clemson games. True freshman Jared Cohen (6-4, 295) got those two starts but Turner was back for their game last week. Right tackle hasn't been settled all season as 2013 returning starter redshirt sophomore Jon Heck (6-6, 300) has missed the last two games with injury. His replacement, redshirt junior Kiaro Holts (6-4, 305) started one game in 2012 and missed all of last season with injury. Both Holts and Heck are banged up so there are still major questions on the right edge for UNC.

On the defensive line in their 3-3-5 scheme the Heels have been able to stay healthy. Junior Justin Thomason (6-4, 275) is in his third year of seeing the field and first as a starter on the interior. He's totaled 12 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 1 sack, and 2 quarterback hurries. Fifth-year senior Ethan Farmer (6-3, 295) is in his second season as a starter at DT and has 14 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, and 2 quarterback hurries. The starting defensive end is redshirt freshman Dajaun Drennon (6-4, 250) and he has 17 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, and 2 quarterback hurries. The star up front is senior Norkeithus Otis (6-1, 235) who plays North Carolina's pass rushing "Bandit" role. He missed the first two games of the season but is rounding into form after a very good 2013. Over his last 16 games Otis has 16.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks.

Adding depth at end is redshirt sophomore Junior Gnonkonde (6-4, 250) who is having a surprising season with 19 tackles and 4 tackles for loss. Also, the aforementioned Nazair Jones (6-5, 280) and sophomore Mikey Bart (6-3, 255) are in the mix, as well.

1 Prediction

Larry Fedora is now in his 3rd year at North Carolina after taking over for Butch "8-4" Davis amid a series of NCAA troubles that led to a post-season ban, a reduction in scholarships, and probation. However, Fedora was a hot name back in December 2011 and brought some promise. He was the OC at Oklahoma State and Florida prior to going 34-19 at Southern Miss, culminating in an impressive 11-2 season in 2011.

By continuing Davis' trend of going 8-4 in 2012, Fedora looked like he might be able to build something strong in the ACC. Then, the Heels slid back a game in 2013 and have started 2014 in unimpressive fashion.

For whatever reason, North Carolina has been getting off to very slow starts under Fedora. They went 1-2 in his first year and finished 7-2, while last year saw the Heels start out 1-5 and win 6 out of their last 7 games. This year they're 2-3 heading into this weekend.

Football Outsiders' Advanced State for Week 7

STAT IRISH HEELS
S&P 13 72
S&P Offense 16 51
S&P Defense 16 87
F/+ 11 79
FEI 15 79
GE 11 105

Let's lay it out there right now: North Carolina's traditional defensive stats are so wretched it's not even funny. They are 124th in scoring defense (last among Power 5 teams), 93rd in rushing defense, 124th in passing defense, and 120th in total defense. This is what happens when you give up at 27 points in every game to start the season.

Now, the advanced stats are a little friendlier for the Tar Heels and to be fair they have played perhaps the best non-Power 5 offense in the country (by a fair margin too) in East Carolina. Plus, they've also faced quarterback Deshaun Watson who might be the best true freshman in the country. So as Mike Mayock would say, North Carolina has played against some dudes on offense.

The problem for Carolina on offense appears to be two-fold. They can't get out of their own way and find consistent quarterback play in the passing game, plus their banged up offensive line has not played well at all. Their skill positions are actually quite good (maybe a step or two above Syracuse in this department) so if they get some consistency in those struggling areas this weekend then some good things can happen. Plus, for all the negative talk about the Heels their offense is averaging 36 points per game and gone over 30 points in 4 out of their 5 games.

It'll be interesting to see how a team that plays 5 defensive backs and has a front seven six weighing 295, 275, 250, 235, 235, and 220 deals with Notre Dame's offense. From the Irish vantage point this should be a game where Martin, Hegarty, and Elmer can get their physicality mojo back but they'll also have to defend against the speed Carolina brings, as well.

If I'm coaching this team I might take a chunk of the 2012 playbook and try to grind down UNC while getting the backup tight ends some much needed experience. I'd also think about sitting Folston to get him healthy while forcing reps into Bryant's lap. If Martin can't be effective with his torn up hand I'd dip into the well at offensive line too. I know it might not be popular or even realistic but it seems to me that Martin and Folston are not the same players due to their injuries and may need to sit.

The Irish should control this game comfortably. The Carolina offense may be frisky at times but I don't foresee Williams handling Notre Dame's exoctic blitzes that well or suddenly finding their running game against one of the country's best run defenses.

There will be some let down from last week, there just has to be. Hopefully, the offense can keep things focused enough so that this isn't too close of a game late in the 4th quarter.

Notre Dame 37

North Carolina 21