Who: Notre Dame at North Carolina
Where: Chapel Hill, North Carolina
When: Saturday, March 1st - Noon (ET)
Analysis: Notre Dame and North Carolina meet for the first time ever as conference opponents. Typically, the Irish have played the Tar Heels every other year, but with Notre Dame's jump to the ACC, the Irish get to play North Carolina consecutive years for the first time since 2008-09.
I wrote in this season's primer that the Tar Heels opened their season with a relatively soft schedule. They have not disappointed in that arena. North Carolina ripped off dominating wins over Furman (19-3), Manhattan (21-5) and Dartmouth (18-5). Star Attackman Joey Sankey has scored three goals apiece in each of their three wins and has also rattled off 6 assists during that stretch. North Carolina has completely put away their first three opponents early, too, leading 8-2, 13-3 and 8-1 at the half. Tar Heels goalie Kieran Burke is yet to play a complete game as well, and he has made 22 saves so far on the year. Defensively, North Carolina hasn't had to do much either. Faceoff Specialist Frankie Kelly is an insane 27-40 (67.5%) from the circle this year filling in for standout Faceoff Specialist R.G. Keenan (missed the past two games with an injury) and the other Tar Heels faceoff specialists have combined to go 25-42 (59.5%). You don't have to play much defense with you have the ball most of the time. However, the Tar Heels defenders have played well when needed. Austin Pifani has stepped up for the North Carolina longpoles, picking up four groundballs and scoring a goal in their last game against Dartmouth.
Prediction: Sure, North Carolina had a soft schedule to open the season and sure their three opponents are a combined 0-10 so far on the year, but this is a power team riding a lot of momentum, winning 13 of their last 14 games. The Tar Heels fell to the Irish 10-9 in three overtimes last season, but have not lost to the Irish at home since 2003. To win, the Irish will have to do better from the faceoff circle than they did against Penn State. Liam O'Connor was hit-and-miss, going 6-14 while Nick Ossello was 4-5. Both will need to likely win 55-60% of the faceoffs to keep the Irish in contention. Stephen O'Hara and Brian Buglione will have to find a way to neutralize Sankey and the potent Tar Heels attack. Most importantly, Conor Kelly will have to play much better in net. Giving up 8 goals is not bad in lacrosse, but only making 7 saves in the process is pretty mediocre. Kelly will have to save at least 10-12 shots. The Irish midfield, dynamic and elusive against Jacksonville but pointless against Penn State will have to find some consistency. Matt Kavanagh has to keep controlled possessions in the Irish Attack and will have to take advantage of the man-up situations as they arise.
This is a tough conference opener for the Irish and if they are able to come out firing on all cylinders, they might catch the Tar Heels off-guard. I don't see it though. Kelly's freshness in net combined with Sankey's All-American play will be too much for the Irish to handle at home. It might turn the Irish's way, but I see them losing a close game.