Notre Dame’s injury luck ran out over the bye week, as the team announced that center Jarrett Patterson will miss the remainder of the season with a broken foot and right guard Tommy Kraemer will miss several weeks after undergoing an appendectomy. The Notre Dame Fighting Irish will need to overcome these losses against North Carolina in by far their biggest test this season outside of Clemson. The North Carolina Tar Heels feature a dynamic offense led by a future NFL quarterback in Sam Howell. The Irish defense will need to bring their best in this one, and we have the numbers to explain the keys to another Notre Dame victory. For an explanation of the stats that will be used in this preview, please follow this link to our analytics primer.
North Carolina’s passing game has been excellent so far, with Howell averaging 0.31 EPA/Pass and a stellar 0.45 EPA on first down. Howell is also one of the best deep ball passers in all of college football, posting a 114.2 Passer Rating and a Pro Football Focus grade over 90 (70 is average) when throwing over 20 yards downfield. Howell is not afraid to attack deep, targeting deep on over 19% of his attempts this season. This is far higher than DJ Uiagalelei’s 9% deep target rate in South Bend a few weeks ago and shows how dangerous Howell could be throwing deep if he hits the Irish with twice as many deep balls as Uiagalelei did. This is a major concern as Notre Dame has struggled to defend the deep ball the majority of the season against much worse quarterbacks.
One of the keys to slowing down this potent passing attack is to get consistent pressure. UNC has given up twenty-two sacks on the season, and PFF has them graded out as just the 71st best pass blocking offensive line. Three starters have given up ten pressures already and have PFF grades below 60, so they have players the Irish can get after pass rushing. The best solution to keeping Howell from unleashing the deep ball may be to generate consistent pressure to disrupt his timing before his receivers can run longer developing deep routes.
The Tar Heels rarely use their tight ends in the passing game, preferring to spread the field and leaning heavily on number one wide receiver Dynami Brown. Brown has NFL talent, and could be a major threat in this game as he receives a huge target share. The Irish have done an excellent job against number one wide receivers the last two weeks, holding Clemson’s Amari Rodgers and Boston College’s Zay Flowers well below their season average EPA/Play figures. Look for Clark Lea to strive for a similar performance this weekend against Brown. However, Brown is not the only Tar Heel receiver with NFL talent, as Dazz Newsome has been even more efficient than Brown and is receiving draft buzz of his own. The Irish have not done well against number two options lately, with Clemson’s Cornell Powell and Boston College’s CJ Lewis tearing the Irish up. The Irish will need to do better balancing their defensive focus across North Carolina’s entire array of weapons, because just blanketing Dynami Brown will not be enough to slow their passing attack.
North Carolina’s passing offense is an obvious threat, but their rushing game is also dangerous. The Tar Heels are second in the country in rushing efficiency by EPA/Play and pick up a ridiculous 6.7 yards per play on the ground. Howell is a decent rusher, but the two headed backfield of Javonte Williams and Michael Carter is doing the damage. Williams is averaging a ridiculous 0.39 EPA/Rush and is currently Pro Football Focus’ highest graded running back. It is worth noting that even though North Carolina’s rush offense is so elite, passing is still more efficient for them by EPA/play than running. If you have a future NFL quarterback (or many times if you don’t) throwing the football is usually going to be preferable to running it and even with their elite run game UNC is no different. North Carolina is yet to figure this out, favoring the rushing attack on 51% of its plays this season. The Irish have been spectacular against the run this season, so the more the ball is taken out of Sam Howell’s hands the better.
Notre Dame is scoring points largely because of Ian Book raising his play. Book was superb last week, averaging 0.31 EPA/Dropback which would have been over two times higher if his teammates did not fumble so often and drop perhaps his best touch pass of the day in the end zone. Book was elite against both Clemson and Boston College, and the Irish need to trust him to be elite this weekend.
North Carolina will seek to slow Ian Book down with the blitz. They have blitzed heavily all season, and they likely see an opportunity to blitz often against two new Irish starters. Zeke Correll and Josh Lugg will be making their first starts of the season for a team that had previously started the same five linemen in each game. This will sound like great news to North Carolina’s leading pass rusher, quarterback turned linebacker Chazz Surratt. Surratt has 27 pressures on the season and will look to disrupt Book’s timing as he has for so many ACC foes so far.
Book will need to know where his check downs are if he finds himself under duress, and we’re hoping to see Michael Mayer and Tommy Tremble contribute more in this area. The pair received only two combined targets last weekend, which was fine given how the passing offense rolled without using them, but that may not be enough this weekend. If North Carolina is bringing pressure and trusting its secondary to play man coverage across the board the Irish should try to run picks and crosses to get their big tight ends open in space.
On the flip side, the Tar Heels have one of the worst run defenses in the country. They give up 5.2 yards per rush and 0.10 EPA/Play to opposing rushers, presenting the Irish an opportunity to get back on track on the ground. Despite this glaring weakness to exploit, it remains a question if Notre Dame will be able to run efficiently. The Irish’s season long rushing figure of 0.1 EPA/Rush is significantly propped up by the first two games. The Irish have not run for positive EPA in a game since Louisville, and will now need to replace two key linemen up front. It is tempting to try to expose UNC’s run defense, but the Irish need to be careful. If they play a lot of Dime packages and put forth a lot of weak boxes, then Kyren Williams should be given the chance to get rolling. If not, this game needs to be in Ian Book’s hands, not two linemen making their first starts of the year. Mix in the run appropriately, but the Irish can not think that because UNC has a weak run defense they can ride Kyren Williams to a victory when they’ve won their last several games from passing efficiently.
In this era of college football great offenses can not be shut down, they can only be contained. North Carolina has an excellent offense, and there is a reason they are only 5 point underdogs despite this being a No. 2 versus No. 19 matchup. If the Irish defense can get any stops in this one the offense should be able to pick up the slack, and Notre Dame’s passing offense has been too sharp lately to not move the ball against a suspect North Carolina defense. We’re taking Notre Dame to win 38-31, but strap in for an intense game. There is going to be a ton of scoring, and it may come down to who gets the football last. We like Notre Dame to win because they are so much stronger defensively, but this could go either way.