The 21st-ranked and 4-1 Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team will travel to Chapel Hill, North Carolina this weekend to take on the 1-4 North Carolina Tar Heels before the Irish’s bye week.
So, because a lot of you are probably in the same boat as me and don’t know too much about coach Larry Fedora’s UNC squad, I talked to Al Hood of Tar Heel Blog to get his perspective on North Carolina’s bad start to the season, Larry Fedora as a coach (and as a dancer), the plethora of injuries the Tar Heels have had to endure, and much more.
Let’s dive right in.
1. It's been an extremely rough start to the season for the Tar Heels, losing 4 of 5 (capped by an absolute slaughter at the hands of Georgia Tech this past weekend).
What are UNC fans' thoughts right now -- why is the team struggling so much? Has Larry Fedora won enough trust from you all in his first 5 seasons, or do you think it's time to make a change?
The answers for this team's struggles are pretty complex for a simple reply, but you have to start with injuries. Just out for the season, not one game but the season, you have thirteen players. This includes two of our best defenders in Andre Smith and Tyler Powell, three wide receivers including our senior leader Austin Proehl, and two tight ends. Oh, and two members of the offensive line, plus two more who missed the Tech game.
When you have a redshirt freshman as a QB, you at least need some stability around him and Chazz Surratt just hasn't had it. By the way, this is after Carolina lost three receivers, two running backs, and some guy who was the 2nd pick in the draft to seniority.
For context, Carolina is already on course to lose 56 starts due to injury in 2017. Tennessee led all of FBS last year with 52. We still have 7 games to play.
Now, Coach Larry Fedora hasn't left unscathed with fans. There is a noisy contingent upset that this team continues to look ill-prepared, and after Georgia Tech there was a small, but loud, base that fired up the #FireFedora.
Most rational fans, however, are willing to give him a pass due to all the injuries sustained and the relative goodwill he's built up over his five prior seasons. He just signed an extension until 2022 prior to the season, and at over $2 million per, his seat is still nice and comfortable.
Plus, he's already got some pretty strong commits coming in for 2018, and with the NCAA giving the team an answer of some form before next season, the clouds he's had to recruit against are going to be gone. If anything, fans are more frustrated over last year's 8-5 record, and are using this year to vent it.
2. Fedora's offenses at UNC have typically been known for their explosiveness and ability to put up a lot of points, but this year' squad is 76th in the country in scoring and 79th in total offense. Obviously losing a top pick like Mitch Trusbisky will set a program back a bit -- has the issue been with the QB play from Chaz Surratt and Brandon Harris? If not, what do you think has caused the offense to sputter of late?
See Number 1. Prior to the Duke game, this offense, even with a redshirt freshman, put up 30, 35, and 53 points. That Duke game is where things went south, as Carolina lost two more receivers and a tight end for the year. That's poison for a young QB, and the results of that attrition were seen this past Saturday.
It also isn't just Trubisky leaving that hurt, it was his backup Caleb Henderson transferring as well. No one expected Trubisky to be a top draft pick, and Henderson was doing the best thing for him when he, as we all did, thought that the next two years were set.
Ideally, Surratt is spending a year as a third/fourth string getting the offense under his belt for another year. It's a real credit to him that he rose up through camp to earn a spot in the conversation and eventually be named starter, and if they hadn't suffered all of those injuries to his targets, you probably see the offense more like the first three games than the last two. The rest of the season is going to be about developing new targets, and hopefully stealing a game somewhere.
3. Who are the receivers that Notre Dame CBs Julian Love, Nick Watkins, and Shaun Crawford will have to really focus on locking down this weekend? How do you think they match up with the Irish secondary?
At this point, Anthony Ratliff-Williams is going to be our best receiver, and I suspect Mike Elko knows that all too well by now, so ARW is likely to see a lot of double teams.
After that? Jordan Cunningham caught a couple of passes, and Devin Perry hauled one in, but ARW is target number 1. The secondary shouldn't have a difficult time guarding these guys, with the caveat that if Carolina finds success with the backfield, then they may have to cheat up to the line leaving guys in single coverage, where anything goes depending on the route that's run.
4. The Tar Heels running game looks to be a group effort that averages 4 yards per carry overall. How do you see that group, and the offensive line, performing against a disciplined, but not completely dominant, Notre Dame defensive front?
If Carolina is to have any success this Saturday, the running backs will have to have great games. Not good, great.
Jordan Brown is someone you should keep your eye on, as he has quickly become the workhorse for this offense. On a putrid offensive day overall, he put up 98 all-purpose yards, one running TD, had a rushing average of 5.1 yards, and a receiving average of 6.3.
One of the best friends of a quarterback under pressure is a running back who can catch the ball out of the backfield, and Brown has done what has been asked of him so far. Carolina also has Michael Carter as a change of pace back, and given the difficulty the team had throwing the ball last week you may see a lot more in that running game.
The thing is that Fedora doesn't believe in ball control. He hopes that he can get a first down or two, then knock you back on your feet by going downhill. If there were ever a season he needs to slow the game down, it'd be this one, but Fedora is...stubborn. By the time the final whistle is blown we will all likely be complaining that he didn't run the ball enough.
Or it'll be such a blow out that running the ball won't matter.
5. The UNC defense has been pretty poor in the first 5 games, and specifically they rank 113th in the nation in rushing defense. Do you think the Tar Heel front seven can withstand the onslaught of an Irish offensive line and rushing attack that currently ranks 7th in the country in rushing yards per game (301.4) and that boasts the #4 rusher in the country in Josh Adams (658 yards)?
Ok, that's not being totally fair. The offense hasn't done the defense any favors, and while you look at that 33-7 score last weekend and think it was a blowout, the fact is Carolina was only down 10-0 against a team that uses the Triple Option as its main weapon. The game really ended when the defense managed to recover a fumble from Tech, Surratt immediately threw an interception, and a dejected defense had to come back out...and they immediately surrendered a touchdown. The defense kept Carolina in that game, but they just couldn't move the ball and eventually they wilted.
That said, it's not just a 2017 problem. If you can run the ball you beat Carolina, because their lack of depth will eventually show. The offense just isn't good enough to keep the defense off the field, and the defense eventually wears out.
6. How do you see the Tar Heels secondary matching up against what has been a very pedestrian passing attack led by ND QB Brandon Wimbush?
The secondary has, mostly, been the main strength of the Carolina defense. They can be thrown on, which probably tells you all you need to know about the defense, but it is still the strength.
The problem has been the aforementioned rushing attack and having to use that secondary to back up the front 7, an even bigger priority without Smith and Powell. That usually involves All-ACC candidate MJ Stewart sneaking up, and even a decent quarterback can take advantage of that. Look out for KJ Sails, who loves being able to celebrate breaking up a pass.
7. Who are the X-factors for UNC on offense, defense, and special teams (if there is one)? That is to say, who are the players whose performances are absolutely crucial to the Tar Heels pulling off the upset on Saturday?
Offense: Jordan Brown. Pretty simple, if he has about 150 all purpose yards, Carolina has a great chance.
Defense: MJ Stewart, as I mentioned Fedora likes to use him to help the front 7, and if he can get in to pressure the QB, putting ND behind the chains, then the running attack will be hurt.
Special teams: Tom Sheldon, our punter, has been outstanding this year and really manages to flip the field. He only has one touchback in 5 games. Bonus: MJ Stewart. Due to injuries he's the 3rd person to take punts this season, and against Tech he started to look more comfortable.
8. Who are the Notre Dame players who scare you heading into this game, and the Tar Heels that Notre Dame should definitely be wary of as the Irish head to Chapel Hill.
The combo of Adams and Wimbush. As mentioned, a team with a good rushing attack has been poison for this team. They have the ability to grind down this team and force big plays on the ground, and limit the ability of the Carolina offense to answer.
For Carolina, I'll be honest: I don't know who you should be scared of, except maybe Michael Carter. He's been quiet since putting up some great runs against Cal, but he offers a change of pace and if he gets some space he'll make you pay.
9. Notre Dame has guys like WR Equanimeous St. Brown and LB Greer Martini on the roster -- what are the best/funniest/most ridiculous names on the North Carolina roster?
Rontavius Groves, better known as Toe.
We also have Chazz Surratt as QB and Dazz Newsome catching passes, so Chazz to Dazz.
We also have Miles of Myles and Miles — Myles Wolfolk, Myles Dorn, Donnie Miles, and the quarterback who also is the answer to "how much will we be out-gained by?", Manny Miles.
10. Larry Fedora vs. Brian Kelly in a dance-off -- what one song does each dance to, and who ultimately wins? For your reference, here is some game tape of BK doin' his thing:
Larry's got some moves. Witness him doing the Nae Nae after the Belk Bowl win:
He also can Dab pretty damn well:
Don't discount the fact that Fedora downs about a case of Red Bull a day, so throw on "Return of the Mack" and watch him go all night. Fedora in a landslide.
11. You must choose two UNC players to represent the Tar Heels on the old Nickelodeon game show Legends of the Hidden Temple. Who do you select, and why?
Tom Sheldon and KJ Sails. Sheldon is almost 30, so he has age on his side, plus he's Australian so God knows what random trivia he's picked up.
Sails is not only athletic, he's a great watch on TV and the celebration he'd pull out when they won would be EPIC.
12. Prediction time - tell me who wins, give me a score prediction, and provide your reasoning behind both.
Notre Dame 35, Carolina 14. Frankly, the questions you had going into the season seem to have been answered, and you are well on your way to a top level bowl game. We haven't been able to beat a team at your level yet, and I think last weekend is a sign of things to come.
ND, meanwhile, only has that loss to Georgia, who sure is looking like they may be able to at least give Bama a game. Tough to see how Carolina pulls this one out.
13. Anything else Notre Dame fans should know about UNC's team, coaches, program, traditions, campus, etc.?
The biggest thing to know about Carolina for anyone traveling to Kenan for the first time (and I'm sure there will be a lot of ND fans there), is that Kenan Stadium has one of the best backdrops in college football that no one talks about.
Its location also makes it tough for a lot of tailgating. Check out Franklin Street at some point during your visit, and what they say about Southern Hospitality is true. Also, if you want to to see a little of the pregame festivities, head up to the Wilson Library at around 2 PM for the band getting together and playing the fans to the stadium.
Also, football is clearly not our top sport right now, but don't let that fool you into thinking the fans don't care. For proof, watch this return from '12 against our rival, and hear how loud Kenan is. When the team is good, it's the place to be.
I want to give a huge shout out to Al for answering all my questions, no matter what they were about, and encourage all of you to follow Al on Twitter, as well as Tar Heel Blog in general, in order to get all the latest on ND’s opponent for this week. Furthermore, be sure to check out their site for all the latest, including a Q&A featuring me and my dumb thoughts.