Don’t look now, folks, but the Notre Dame Fighting Irish are starting to make that tiny glimmer of irrational confidence in fans’ hearts begin to grow, as the now 4-1 and 21st-ranked ND football team has destroyed 3 hapless opponents in a row and hopes to do the same to a reeling North Carolina Tar Heels team that sits at 1-4 and is coming off a blowout loss to Georgia Tech.
Notre Dame hopes to get another road win and coast into its bye week with a 5-1 record, allowing the Irish to admire a first half where they beat everyone they were “supposed” to beat, as well as prepare for a big matchup against the USC Trojans on October 21st in South Bend. The Trojans are currently ranked 14th in the nation.
The Tar Heels, meanwhile, are hoping for SOMETHING to start going right in a season that has been a disaster, as UNC has lost 13 players for the SEASON already to injuries and has not looked like the typical Larry Fedora offensive juggernaut we’ve grown accustomed to seeing (part of that miiiiiiight have something to do with losing a starting QB to the team drafting 2nd in the 2017 NFL Draft).
So, how will the two teams match up when they go head-to-head at Kenan Memorial Stadium tomorrow at 3:30 PM ET? Let’s take a look.
North Carolina Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
College football fans have gotten pretty used to seeing North Carolina offenses under Larry Fedora move the ball down the field effectively, especially through the air. However, this year’s Tar Heels offensive unit has not been fantastic on offense, ranking an aggressively-mediocre 79th in the country in total offense and 76th in scoring.
Former UNC QB Mitch Trubisky’s meteoric rise last season to the #2 pick in the NFL Draft has something to do with that, as does the transfer of backup QB Caleb Henderson the season prior. Because of the sudden lack of experience at QB, UNC was forced to choose between graduate transfer Brandon Harris (formerly of LSU) and redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt.
Surratt was the more impressive player, winning the starting job and backing that decision up with his solid play so far in his first season of game action. Chazz (I’m going to call him by his first name a lot in this article — his name is too fun to say and type not to do so) has thrown for 988 yards and 5 TD in UNC’s first 5 games, completing 63.3% of his passes, averaging almost 8 yards per attempt, and throwing just 2 interceptions.
Those aren’t Mitch Trubisky-esque numbers, but for a first-time starter with limited weapons at receiver and tight end thanks to a slew of injuries, the future looks bright for Surratt in Chapel Hill. Because the injury bug hit 3 WRs and 2 TEs for UNC — including senior leader and leading WR Austin Proehl, the son of former NFL WR Ricky Proehl — Chazz is still figuring out who all he can count on through the passing game.
The unquestioned leading receiver now is Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who has snared 11 passes for 201 yards and a TD so far this season and is a proven playmaker.
After Ratliff-Williams, though, are one or two somewhat-proven guys and then a whole lot of young, inexperienced talent. Jordan Cunningham has caught 14 passes for 183 yards this season, RB Jordon Brown has managed to collect 20 receptions for 125 yards out of the backfield, and Dazz Newsome and Devin Perry look like promising talents, but overall Surratt certainly will have slimmer pickings than he would like when it comes to who he can throw to tomorrow.
This is good news for the Notre Dame secondary, who are not particularly great at shutting down the pass (85th in the country in pass defense), but who are opportunistic and certainly capable of making enough plays to keep a depleted Tar Heels receiving corps from doing too much damage.
CB Julian Love will be key, per usual. He’s the Irish’s best defensive back, having already amassed 21 tackles, 6 pass break-ups, and a big-time pick-six against MSU a couple weeks ago. Look for him to match up with the 6’1” Ratliff-Williams a lot as Elko tries to force Chazz to throw to any other target.
If the other receivers can make some plays though(very possible considering how ND CB Nick Watkins was playing the ball last week against Miami and considering safeties Jalen Elliott and Nick Coleman have still not been tested much over the top), then UNC might just be able to hang around — at least for a bit — in this one. But if Fedora trusts in the young Surratt too much, Fighting Irish fans might just get to see CB Shaun Crawford (2 INT, 1 FF this season) come up with another turnover or two.
Furthermore, the Notre Dame pass rush continues to impress this season (albeit against not great competition, and also it’s hard not to impress after the nonexistent pass rush in 2016), and that effort is led by defensive ends Daelin Hayes (12 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack), Julian Okwara (2.5 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 1 FF), and Jay Hayes (15 tackles). Those three have been fantastic this season in getting to the quarterback off the edge and forcing hurried throws with their speed, size, and athleticism. Khalid Kareem and Andrew Trumbetti (a combined 22 tackles, 5 TFL, 1 sack) add solid depth and promising pass rush ability to go along with the Hayeses and Okwara, and DT Jerry Tillery has been a monster in getting penetration on the inside, amassing a team-leading 3 sacks from that position.
Shutting down the pass will only be half the battle for ND, though, as UNC does have a number of guys who can make plays on the ground. Chazz himself has run for 147 yards and 4 TD this season, so he isn’t a statue back there.
But the workhorses on the ground for the Tar Heels are Jordon Brown and Michael Carter, who have combined for 475 rushing yards, 8 TD, and who each average ~5 yards per carry. Brown is the guy ND really needs to focus on stopping on a frequent basis, but they also need to be sure not to allow Carter to get any running room, as he’s similar to ND’s Josh Adams and Dexter Williams in that just a sliver of daylight could mean he’s gone.
Notre Dame’s 64th-ranked run defense won’t ever be confused with Alabama’s, but the Irish have plenty of size and talent in the front seven to contain a Tar Heels rushing attack that has lost multiple starters on the offensive line due to injuries.
The key players, per usual, will be the talented trio of linebackers of Nyles Morgan, Greer Martini, and Te’von Coney. Those three have combined for 111 tackles, 7.5 TFL, 2 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, and an interception through 5 games, and it goes without saying that their ability to run down and tackle Brown, Carter, and Chazz will be crucial to the Irish’s success as a defense tomorrow.
The defensive line will be important too, considering the aforementioned missing offensive linemen, and that group is headlined by junior DT Jerry “Don’t Call Me Terry” Tillery, who is an astounding 5th on the team in tackles as an interior defensive lineman with 22 tackles, while also leading the team in sacks (3, as mentioned earlier) and having also forced a fumble and hurried the QB 3 other times.
If Tillery and fellow inside guys Jonathan Bonner (15 tackles, 1 sack) and true freshman Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa are able to get a strong push, it will go a long way in freeing up Morgan, Martini, Coney, and rover Drue Tranquill (27 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 INT) to do what they do best and make bone-crushing tackles.
Overall, North Carolina’s offense is decimated by injuries and just isn’t what it used to be in past seasons under Larry Fedora. However, there are some talented players for the Irish to watch out for — namely Chazz Surratt, Anthony Ratliff-Williams, Jordon Brown, and Michael Carter. If the Irish can limit the big plays from those guys, they have a very good chance to win this game by a lot. The key will be continuing to play opportunistic football and not allow the Tar Heels to convert drives into touchdowns.
Notre Dame Offense vs. North Carolina Defense
The North Carolina defense is not good.
Like the offense, part of the reason for that involves injuries to key players, as LB Andre Smith (21 tackles, 1 INT this year prior to his injury) and DL Tyler Powell are both out, severely weakening the Tar Heels’ front seven.
That front seven, through 5 games, ranks 113th in the country in rushing defense, giving up about 222 yards per game on the ground. If you’re a Notre Dame offensive lineman — specifically LG Quenton Nelson and LT Mike McGlinchey, who have been absolutely destroying folks since the disappointing o-line play against Georgia — you’re licking your chops thinking about trucking Tar Heel defenders and opening vast running lanes for the backfield that’s currently ranked 7th in the country in rushing yards (301.4 yards per game).
This matchup between the ND running game and the UNC front seven will be especially important due to the questions surrounding ND QB Brandon Wimbush’s health, as he has been in a walking boot this week. Wimbush was taking some reps in practice by the end of the week, but Brian Kelly would not make an official decision on if he would start Wimbush or if they would go with backup QB Ian Book.
Not having Wimbush out there would certainly hurt the running game, as Wimbush’s ability to tuck it and run has been crucial for Notre Dame this season. The junior has 402 yards and 8 TD already this season, averaging 6 yards per carry.
However, even without Wimbush, Notre Dame should be able to run at will tomorrow considering UNC’s defense. RB Josh Adams, who is currently 4th in the nation in rushing yards with 658 (9 yards per carry, 4 TD), will be 100% and ready to play, and backup RB Dexter Williams (214 yards, 10.7 yards per carry, 4 TD) will also be ready after sitting out the Miami-Ohio game as a precautionary measure.
Between those two and redshirt freshman RB Deon McIntosh, the Irish have plenty of formidable talent to carry the ball through the big running lanes that Nelson, McGlinchey and co. will likely be creating. Plus, although he isn’t on Wimbush’s level, Ian Book is no slouch carrying the ball (5 carries, 40 yards), and could make some plays with his legs as well if he’s called upon to start this game.
With Smith and Powell out, the Tar Heels responsible for trying to corral that scary Irish running game include LBs Cole Holcomb (43 tackles, 2 TFL, 3 QBH) and Cayson Collins (34 tackles, 2 sacks, 2.5 TFL) and DL Malik Carney (20 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4.5 TFL, 3 QBH), Jeremiah Clarke (16 tackles), Dajuan Drennon (15 tackles, 4 QBH), Aaron Crawford (14 tackles, 1.5 sacks), and Jason Strowbridge (14 tackles, 1 sack, 1 FF). Holcomb, Collins, and Carney will be especially important, and will all need to have big games if they stand any chance of getting stops against the ND offense.
That group will also be supplemented by All-ACC DB MJ Stewart creeping up in run support. Stewart is probably the best player on this UNC defense and is asked to lend significant help up front on both running and passing downs. The senior has 18 tackles, 2 sacks, and 4 TFL on the season, so he’s clearly a guy the offensive line and running backs need to be wary of when seeking out Tar Heels to block each play. He also has 5 pass break-ups on the season, as he’s excellent in coverage as well.
The rest of the Tar Heels secondary isn’t much to write home about, as evidenced by UNC’s 90th-ranked pass defense. CB KJ Sails is definitely capable of making some plays in coverage, and has 6 pass break-ups already this season to show for it. My sources tell me he also likes to celebrate breaking up passes, so everyone should prepare for that possibility. Other key DBs include Donnie Miles (34 tackles, 1 INT, 1 FF) and Myles Dorn (26 tackles, 1 FF), a couple guys who can make plays when given the opportunity.
And considering the uncertainty around Wimbush’s status, the Tar Heels secondary might have a few opportunities. Even if he starts, Wimbush has been shaky and inconsistent throwing the ball on healthy days, completing just 52% of his passes en route to accumulating 783 yards, 6 TD, and 2 INT on 6 yards per attempt.
But if he doesn’t start, the Irish will be throwing the ball with a guy who’s just 3-of-8 on the season for 51 yards, with the vast majority of those yards coming last week on a 48-yard bomb caught by WR Chris Finke in a beautiful diving catch behind the Miami RedHawks defense.
Along with the questions at QB, this Notre Dame team is still trying to find a reliable, dangerous target opposite Equanimeous St. Brown. St. Brown has 14 catches for 202 yards and 2 TD so far this season, but has not had a consistent presence on the other side of the offense to help take the focus off of him.
TE Alizé Mack has been pretty reliable with 11 receptions and 116 yards this year, and 6’4” WR Chase Claypool has been fantastic of late (6 catches, 84 yards, and his first career touchdown in the past two games), but after those two there are just a lot of guys chipping in one or two catches here and there but never establishing themselves as anything more than another receiver on the field.
Guys like Finke, TE Durham Smythe, WR Miles Boykin (caught a 54-yard TD last week), and Cam Smith all need to step up and make a few more plays to ensure that opposing defenses can’t load the box against the ND rushing attack. Otherwise, guys like MJ Stewart could be able to creep up too often and make plays up front to limit the running game’s success.
However, no matter how limited the ND passing attack may be tomorrow, the Notre Dame rushing attack is good enough to control this game, and should still see a ton of success against a UNC front seven that simply isn’t equipped personnel-wise to handle this sort of ground game.
Earlier in the week I was told by Tar Heel Blog that North Carolina punter Tom Sheldon has been huge for them, able to flip the field and really help the Tar Heels out in terms of field position. I looked the man up, and Tom Sheldon is indeed CRUSHING it this season, as he is 9th in the country in punting, averaging 45.7 yards per punt.
That could make it a little harder for ND to put up as many points as we are used to this season, but on the flip side it might create situations where Chris Finke actually has room/time to try to return a punt? One can dream...
Meanwhile, the UNC kicker has a pretty sweet name (Freeman Jones), but has not been fantastic in his field goal kicking this year. He’s 3-for-3 from 30-39 yards away, but his 3 attempts from 40+ yards have been not good, and so Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko has gotta be looking for his defense to just keep UNC out of the end zone and force Jones to hit some field goals to have any chance of staying with that high-powered Chip Long offense.
I think if UNC had all those injured players back, this would probably be a very close game, considering it’s at Chapel Hill. However, we don’t live in that reality, so expect to see Notre Dame’s offense, no matter who is quarterbacking it, ram the ball right down UNC’s throat in the same fashion as it has done against Temple, BC, MSU, and Miami.
UNC may put up a few more points than the other offenses ND has faced, but overall I expect the Elko defense to continue to play disciplined, bend-don’t-break football and make enough plays to pull away in the second half and win this one fairly handily.
I’m going to say 44-28, Irish.