HELLO FOOTBALL FANS!!!!
It’s Thursday morning, and that, of course, means it’s once again time for another opponent Q&A for the upcoming Notre Dame Fighting Irish football game this Saturday.
The Irish, as you’re well aware, are currently ranked #11 in the country and fresh off a 31-16 victory over their reeling rivals, the USC Trojans.
Now, at 6-1 and staring down the final 5 games on the 2021 schedule, the Irish plan to play host to the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday evening. The Heels are 4-3 on the year, which is certainly a bit disappointing considering their preseason ranking (#10). With that said, UNC still has plenty of talent to work with, and knowing this Irish team, there’s absolutely no guarantee they’ll be able to pick up an easy win against this opponent.
So, in order to arm ourselves with the best knowledge possible for such a potentially dangerous game, I reached out to Akil Guruparan, an editor at Tar Heel Blog (SB Nation’s hub for all things UNC). Akil graciously answered all my questions about the rough season to-date, Sam Howell and Josh Downs, the Tar Heel defense, Squid Game, “Monster Mash,” and much more.
Plus, I snuck in a little treat for y’all at halftime, because it’s Halloween weekend and I’d much rather treat my loyal readers than trick them.
So, let us not tarry any longer — it’s time to dive into this ocean of knowledge below!
1. The Tar Heels started the season at #10 in the preseason polls, but now sit unranked at 4-3 thanks to some not-great losses. What were your expectations entering this season, and what’s gone wrong for the Heels in year 3 of Mack Brown’s second stint in Chapel Hill?
Akil Guruparan: Mack Brown will tell you that opening the season at #10 was a gross overrating, but honestly, based on what we had to go off, I think it was pretty reasonable. A top-5 offense had lost two game-breaking running backs and two really productive receivers, but the defense was supposedly getting a serious talent upgrade, an average-to-above average offensive line was returning 5 starters and was expected to improve just based on chemistry and cohesion, and Sam Howell was a Heisman dark horse who should have been expected to make things work with slightly lower skill position talent. I thought anything under a 9-win season would be a disappointment, and I think I was justified.
As for what’s gone wrong... pretty much everything. Writing a positional breakdown after the loss to Florida State felt like performing an autopsy. Nearly every position group has regressed, but the offensive line has been the most shocking. There’s been some injury trouble at the center position, but even outside that, the group has been awful in pass protection and only okay in the run game, which isn’t good enough for new running backs that aren’t consistently moving the chains. Only one wide receiver has shown any ability to get open and make a play in the passing game, and it feels like Howell doesn’t trust them to redeem themselves anymore.
On defense, the Heels just aren’t disciplined on all three levels. There’s clearly individual talent, but for some reason, the unit has been way less than the sum of its parts, and it’s hard to tell why. The secondary has been particularly disappointing, because by talent it should be among the ACC’s best, and it’s been only average if that.
2. How has Sam Howell been this season compared to last year? Is he struggling with all the skill talent he lost from the 2020 team, or is there another reason his Heisman hype quieted down?
Akil Guruparan: I’ll start off by saying Howell is already the best quarterback in UNC history — he already holds the program record for passing touchdowns, he’ll have the yardage record in another game or two, and he’s already carried his team to a few more wins than it’s probably deserved. Even this season, he’s maintained his streak of throwing a touchdown in every game he’s played, which is absurd.
But he’s definitely taken a step back this year, and I see two primary reasons. The first is losing those skill position players, especially in the backfield, who gave him targets he trusted as check-downs and consistently gave him manageable downs & distances.
The second is that he seems to have spent most of his offseason working on becoming a dual threat, and he’s running so much it’s becoming a detriment to his passing game — both because he’s now being asked to shoulder the team’s running game and its passing game (see Newton, Cam), and because he’s bet on himself so much that he takes off to run after scanning just two reads instead of looking for check-downs or safety valves.
Either way, he’s a different guy this season. He used to have a flawless deep ball, and now he rarely hits one (most of his receivers also aren’t separating deep). He used to be a master of varying his deliveries and trajectories, and now he basically only throws floaters. He’s been a successful enough runner to mitigate that passing regression, but it’s still been a bummer.
3. Besides Howell, who are the names to know on this UNC offense that still ranks in the Top 10 in SP+? And how do you foresee the Tar Heel o-line matching up with ND’s defensive front?
Akil Guruparan: Josh Downs, Josh Downs, and Josh Downs. Nearly 50% of Howell’s completions and 45% of his yards have gone to Downs, and for good reason, because the sophomore receiver has been unguardable this whole season, primarily from the slot. He has at least 8 catches in every game this season, and he gets it done short, intermediate, and deep. He’s a phenomenal route-runner and lethal after the catch, and he’s been just about the only reliable offense UNC has had this year.
Graduate transfer running back Ty Chandler also has his moments, but isn’t really integrated into the team. As for the offensive line versus Notre Dame’s front... yeesh. I’m not expecting much success, and I can only hope the game plan starts out by attacking the shallow outside with tosses and tunnel screens just to slow down that front’s assault on the quarterback. If UNC is going to compete in this game, it’ll be by making the offensive line matter as little as possible.
4. Whereas the UNC offense is #6 in the country in SP+, the defense is a much more pedestrian #58. What are the strengths and weaknesses of that group, and what can the Irish offense do to find success against them?
Akil Guruparan: The defense has been fairly opportunistic, with 10 forced turnovers in 7 games including one to end the game against Miami. Tony Grimes is also a star on one side of the secondary; he’s got 6 pass breakups and usually doesn’t see the ball come his way.
They’re also pretty good in the run game against not-option teams, where they don’t have to worry about eye discipline or reading keys and can just fill and make a play. Everywhere else, they’ve struggled. The front 7 has a hard time maintaining integrity on option plays and containing mobile quarterbacks, which fortunately isn’t Jack Coan’s game.
Kyler McMichael, the outside corner opposite Grimes, has really struggled after a decent 2020, and UNC’s safety play hasn’t been great, either, biting early when the pocket breaks and allowing big plays. Our linebackers also have been liable in coverage, which makes us a great matchup for a decent tight end. The pass rush comes and goes, with Myles Murphy leading the way with 4 sacks from the interior.
5. FAN QUESTION:
Any UNC players out for this game?— Cheryl Russo (@CherylR01091480) October 24, 2021
Akil Guruparan: None who’ve played significant time this year. We’re waiting on cornerback Storm Duck with bated breath, because he’s legitimately good and has the best name in football, but injuries have kept him out for almost a full year and a half at this point.
Freshman running back Caleb Hood had some good moments early in the year but hasn’t played in a bit, and wide receiver Beau Corrales would give Howell somebody he trusts not named Josh Downs, but he’s recovering from a preseason surgery.
WE INTERRUPT THIS Q&A TO BRING YOU ANOTHER Q&A WITHIN THE Q&A...PLEASE ENJOY THIS IN-DEPTH INTERVIEW WITH THE THREE BROTHERS OF NORTH CAROLINA CENTER BRIAN ANDERSON.
I mentioned this last year in my UNC Q&A — my roommate freshman through junior year at Notre Dame was a well-mannered, garrulous young man from Alabama — complete with that southern swoop hairstyle we all know and love — by the name of Roscoe Anderson.
Roscoe and I became fast friends and are still extremely close to this day, and over the years I’ve also gotten to know his wonderful family (they’re seriously an incredible group of people...shout-out to ALL OF THEM), including his three brothers.
One of said brothers — the youngest — is Brian, who just so happens to be a grad-student center for the North Carolina Tar Heels. So, given the fact I have access to the young men who know him best, I reached out to Brian’s brothers (Roscoe, Charlie, and Sterling) for all the insight you never knew you needed into this one specific offensive lineman on Mack Brown’s squad.
Let’s dive into what I uncovered.
1. I asked Roscoe this last time, but I’m gonna ask it again because it’s important and I want everyone’s perspectives: what would you say is Brian’s greatest weakness, and how can the Irish defense exploit that on Saturday night?
Charlie: The best thing to do is abandon hope. Notre Dame’s corn-fed nose will instead be served a heaping portion of grass and dirt for 4 quarters when the beast shoves him into the ground all night. He’ll need to light up several candles at the Grotto in prayer for the good Lord to release him of the nightmare that’s to come Saturday. It will be a traumatic experience. I pity him.
Roscoe: Brian’s biggest weakness is that he’s lit a candle at the grotto before. As a Catholic with a devotion to Mary, I imagine it will be trying— and maybe even conflicting— going up against Our Lady’s University
2021 Update: Photo evidence of a proud Notre Dame Brother at the grotto (ca. 2010, as evidenced by picture quality)
Sterling: Hunting. If the defensive linemen have duck/turkey calls ready to go, not only will the offense not be able to hear the play calls, but Brian will be in his own little fantasy land thinking about all the good times he will have post-season in the stand/blinds.
Also, if the Irish can pay top dollar to get the announcer to read off the sales from the weekly bulletin at the local Bass Pro Shop, He may call it a day and head in early to spend a little NIL money before they fly off the shelf.
2. Brian’s the youngest of the four Anderson brothers, but he grew to be the biggest of all of you. How did this happen and why didn’t you try to stop it? Also, at what age did he officially become the biggest?
Sterling: He’s always been bigger than most of the kids in his grade growing up. As the older siblings, he was always smaller than us and our egos got in the way. We would pester and think it was cute that he was big but still not as strong as us. It wasn’t until senior year of HS that Brian became the biggest, and being away from home in college/working, it was difficult to stop the monster that we partly created.
Charlie: He was always a mammoth and head and shoulders bigger than all of his classmates. It was only a matter of time. He was my height in 9th grade (6’1”) and actually drank 64oz of skim milk every day. He became the biggest brother the following year at age 16.
Roscoe: Probably a result of the copious amounts of milk he drank (I think at one point he would down a gallon a day). I think he probably became the biggest around his junior or senior year of high school — Charlie played college football as well, and at that time had just moved positions from lineman to fullback and ended up losing about 40 pounds in the offseason. At the same time, Brian just kept growing. Not much we could do about it. I couldn’t be the smartest, best looking, and the biggest, had to give him something
3. What’s the most embarrassing Halloween costume you can remember Brian ever wearing, and can you get me a picture of it?
Sterling: Mom definitely has a picture of the most generic $9.99 Walmart pumpkin costume you’ve ever seen, and he wore it with pride.
Charlie: The only one that I can recall and have a picture of is when he was a mean jack-o-lantern at age 4. Please see attached.
Roscoe: The pumpkin, and absolutely:
4. If you had to compare Brian to a Halloween candy, what would you choose and why? How about for the rest of you Anderson boys?
Sterling: Snickers — he makes us all laugh
Charlie: Reese’s — everyone loves him
Brian — Sour patch kids. First, he’s sour, then he’s sweet. A perfect analogy for him playing sports and then seeing him post-game/at home being the kind, goofball kid that he is.
Roscoe — Nerds. He’s the smartest one out of us 4.
Charlie — Jawbreakers. The dude’s tough as nails
Brian is a Reese’s pumpkin: wide in shape, sweet, and salty. He’s a gentleman with the ability to get salty and mean.
Roscoe is a Ferrero Rocher: a candy for the sophisticated and highly educated, much like himself.
Sterling is Nerds Rope: he’s the slimmest in stature among us and a doctor.
I would be Twix: a solid, indulgent, and decadent treat.
5. When did you first know Brian was destined for great things athletically? Was there a specific moment?
Sterling: It was watching him play his first St. Bede basketball league game on 8-foot rims. The kid averaged like 20+ points a game because no one was tall enough to block his shots
Charlie: 10th grade. He was very large and put together a dominant highlight reel. He was already in a different league than everyone else on the field.
Roscoe: By the time Brian was in 3rd grade he was basically the biggest kid in the grade school. When he was playing pee wee football, I remember one game where he was on the offensive line, stood up, extended both arms, and basically clotheslined/dragged 4 defenders out of the way — that was probably one of the first moments.
6. What’s the most impressive physical feat you’ve ever witnessed Brian accomplish, and how does it compare to your own personal most impressive physical feat?
Charlie: On a play against Miami last year, he pulled on a kick-out block and put last year’s 18th overall draft pick, Jaelan Phillips, on his back.
I’ve had some good blocks myself, but I think his feat bests my most glorious individual accomplishment of 2 TDs in the Houston Sports and Social Club flag football championship game.
Roscoe: In high school on screen passes he would throw defenders into the turf with one hand, and then move on and take out a linebacker and drive him back 15 yards and then bury him.
He’s also always had incredible balance for someone his size. He used to ride around on a skateboard some growing up, and it was impressive to see someone his size stay on and and actually move around.
I played on some pretty good bookstore basketball teams in my day.*
*Pat Rick Note: same — shout out to the Straight-Shootin’ Dougs, At Least We Score More Than BYU Players, Take a Dunk On My Chest, and The Annexation of Kamchatka
Sterling: I saw him during a high school game literally pick a defender up and throw him about 3-5 yards back.
Senior year I could squat 1.5 Brians….
7. Name something football-wise you know you’re superior to Brian at doing. Let’s try to humble this guy a bit now.
Sterling: Route running, catching, pass coverage, kicking, punting.
Charlie: I know I can run routes and catch the ball better than him. He’s way more effective as a blocker than me in every aspect except I can hit harder at the point of attack.
Roscoe: Long snapping, but if I had to block a defender too he would have me beat.
8. It looks like Brian is doing some fun NIL stuff with his Instagram account “Tar Heel Sportsman.” Would you say he’s the best hunter/fisherman in the family? Please power rank every member of your family, including your wives and parents, in terms of their hunting/fishing/outdoorsman abilities.
Roscoe: Brian is the best hunter. I’d say I’m the best fisherman. Followed by my dad, Sterling, Charlie, Lexi, Frances and Jenny.
My mom gets credit for all of us, and she’s actually a really good shot when it comes to shooting sporting clays, and is good at fishing too.
Charlie: 1- Brian 2- Roscoe 3- Dad 4- Sterling 5-Me 6- Mom 7- Lexi 8- Jenny 9- Frances
Sterling: Brian is definitely the best in the family, then Dad, Me, Charlie, Roscoe, Mom, Frances (doesn’t hunt, still trying to get her out there...this does not change my love for her :) ).
9. Roscoe and his wife Lexi are expecting their first child within just a few months. If you had to pick a UNC or Notre Dame themed name to give the baby, what would it be?
Charlie: Assuming it’s another Anderson boy, Sean Patrick Ramses McO’Sullivan Anderson
Roscoe: Justin Yoon Anderson (or Justine Yoon Anderson if it’s a girl) — the baby’s starting to be a pretty good kicker!*
*Pat Rick Note: ayyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy
10. How many Brians would it take to defeat a grizzly bear in a fight to the death? Also, please answer this same question, but about yourself.
Roscoe: One if he can use a weapon, probably 4 if there aren’t any weapons. I’d probably need about 20 me’s to get the job done.
Sterling: Just 1 if he is able to have some sort of weapon, but if we’re talking a bare-knuckle beatdown, then 2-3. I would have to say it would take 10-12 of me to accomplish the same feat.
Charlie: 7 Brians. Not all would survive, but 7 could get it done. I’m past my prime, but I think a dozen amped Charlies could take down a grizzly.
Bonus: would you rather fight one Brian-sized duck or 30 duck-sized Brians?
Charlie: I would rather fight 30 duck-sized Brians. A Brian-sized duck would be twitchy with a dangerous bill. Bring on the small tubby army.
Roscoe: 30 duck-sized Brians — if I couldn’t take on the swans in the park as a kid, I wouldn’t stand a chance against a duck sized Brian.
Sterling: Hahahaha a Brian-sized duck would beat my ass. I’ll take on the 30 duck-sized Brians.
11. UNC alum Michael Jordan famously said “The ceiling is the roof” 4+ years ago. Please explain what this means in the context of Brian and his athletic career/academic career/life in general.
Charlie: The ceiling is indeed the roof. Jordan is the greatest hooper to ever live, but this is an interesting way of saying “we have potential.” Brian will be getting free bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UNC, so he’ll be successful on and off the field in whatever endeavor he pursues. The ceiling is the roof.
Sterling: There’s always room to improve and grow. I know how much he has physically and athletically improved since watching him in HS and his first year at UNC. I know if he continues to work hard and focus, he will be able to make it to the next level and improve even more to fight for a top spot on the depth chart.
Roscoe: The ceiling is the roof isn’t just a saying, it’s a way of life. Just when you think you’ve hit the ceiling on what you can do, guess what? There’s a roof above it!
Brian works hard, sets high goals for himself, and exceeds them.
12. What’s your prediction for this game? I need a score, who wins, your reasoning, and how many pancakes you think Brian will have.
Roscoe: Going with the brother — UNC 38-31.
While UNC’s season hasn’t met preseason expectations, there is a lot of talent on the team, especially offensively, and this season has shown any team can win any game. I think ND has shown some vulnerability this season, and if they aren’t careful could have an upset on their hands.
Coming off a bye, look to see UNC coming together to play a complete game, and a lot of offense from both sides. 2-3 pancakes for Brian on the field
Sterling: High scoring, 42-37 UNC.
It will be an offensive shootout, and the D forcing the most punts (not necessarily turnovers) will win.
The line is Brian -2.5 pancakes at -120, and I heard this is Stu Feiner’s hammer pick of the week.
Charlie: I like the Heels to outlast the Irish 27-24 in a war of attrition.
Notre Dame is physically bigger, will impose themselves, run the ball, and chip down the field with Michael Mayer. Jack Coan is a game manager, not a playmaker. He’s big and slow. He reminds me of Kyle Trask with a weaker arm.
UNC has been inconsistent across the board, but they’ll find their groove here at the midpoint of the season like they did last year. The key to a Tar Heel win is the play from the O-Line. If they can protect Howell and keep Drew White in check all game, they’ll be able to move the ball. White is ultra-fast sideline to sideline and fills the gaps hard.
Hamilton will probably pick off Howell and get burnt by Downs once or twice.* This is a more vulnerable Notre Dame than last year’s with Ian Book. The Heels will elevate their game. Hungry Brian will have 5+ KDs.
*Pat Rick Note: Charlie sent me his answers prior to Kyle Hamilton being ruled out for this game — pretend he said “D.J. Brown” instead here.
Bonus, Again: anything else we should know about Brian? Maybe his greatest fear, or an embarrassing story from when he was a kid, or anything else Irish fans should know???
Sterling: I have a video one Christmas a few years ago of Brian getting frustrated in his undies trying to fish for his beard trimmer he dropped in the toilet. Wanna see it?*
*Pat Rick Note: YES, YES I DO
Charlie: Brian has just recently overcome his fear of fruit. We once terrorized him as a kid by hanging a banana on a string from the top of a door frame to keep him from leaving the room. I hear he enjoys real fruit smoothies now. Proud of him!!
Roscoe: Halloween costume honorable mention: Brian was a fan of the chicken hat/morph suit combo, and would also wear it to varsity sporting events growing up — most couldn’t pull it off, but the Heelys gliding across the floor really made the outfit come together.
WE NOW RETURN YOU TO YOUR REGULARLY-SCHEDULED Q&A PROGRAMMING.
6. FAN QUESTION:
How exactly do you get tar on your heel? Is it from working on roofs? Or is it from running away from a tar and feathering?— Charlie Hindman (@CHindman76) October 25, 2021
Akil Guruparan: The story goes that the Tar Heels nickname for North Carolina/North Carolinians comes from a Civil War battle where all the Confederates fled the scene except for the North Carolinians, who were later praised for standing their ground like they had tar on their heels.
I don’t feel great about a nickname derived from Confederate fighters on principle, but there are worse attributes than perseverance and courage in the face of overwhelming odds. Besides, what’s a Hoosier?
7. FAN QUESTION:
“What’s your favorite thing about Tyler Hansbrough and why?”— Ryan Kennedy (@RyanKWrites) October 25, 2021
Akil Guruparan: Other than the memories of the 2008 Final Four run and the 2009 championship, I remember a feature on his teammate Marcus Ginyard that was about him getting regular pedicures, and it mentioned that he’d convinced Hansbrough to come along with him — and the image of a 6’9, 250-pound dude, especially one as goofy-looking as Hansbrough, walking into a nail salon every week brings me inordinate joy.*
*Pat Rick Note: Big-time “same” from me
8. If the entire UNC football team and coaching staff were competing in a series of high-stakes children’s games (Red Light Green Light, Tug of War, Marbles, etc.) just like in the Netflix series Squid Game, what 2 or 3 players/coaches would you bet on to win it all, and why?
Akil Guruparan: Incredible. Excellent question. I’m taking Dre Bly, cornerbacks coach, because I feel like he’s old enough to have experienced children’s games but still close enough to his physical peak where he’d be close to even with the young people.
Joining him I’ll give him Downs — his nephew for the family connection and the best stop-start athlete on the team, which comes in handy for Red Light Green Light — and Tony Grimes, who, like every good DB, knows how to play mind games with the opposition.
9. SPOOKY SEASON QUESTION: If the UNC football team were to act out the hit song “Monster Mash” by Bobby Boris Pickett and the Crypt Kickers, what current players/coaches would assume the below roles, and why?
- Zombies Having Fun: Power Echols (linebacker) - feels like he’s the most expressive guy on the team.
- Vampires Feasting: Offensive Line - do I need to explain?
- Ghouls from Humble Abodes: This one feels like it could go sideways, so I’ll point out Ben Kiernan, whose journey to Chapel Hill involves traveling from his home city of Dublin, Ireland, so his sister’s cerebral palsy could be better treated. International travel might not be “humble,” but meh.
- Wolfman: DE/OLB Des Evans is an absolute unit. It hasn’t all translated into on-field results, but sometimes he just pops.
- Dracula: Dre Bly, for no particular reason other than that I can make this next one work
- Dracula’s Son: Bly’s nephew, as mentioned before, Josh Downs
- Igor: “In chains” has to be offensive line coach Stacy Searels, who’s been many UNC fans’ primary scapegoat for the season gone sideways.
- Baying Hounds: I’ll take linebackers here - no particular reason other than you want linebackers to be dogs, yanno?
- Coffin Bangers: Mack Brown, for reviving his coaching career to unforeseen success, even with this season not going as planned
- “The Crypt-Kicker Five”: DE/OLB Tomon Fox created an artistic accompaniment to former player Jake Lawler’s essay about racism last year, so he feels closest on the team to a backing band.
*Pat Rick Note: now please enjoy a lovely 4 minutes and 23 seconds of absolute musical (and face-making) perfection:
10. Alright, let’s get down to it: who wins, what’s the score, and why?
Akil Guruparan: I’m pretty sure Mack Brown hasn’t won a game yet as an underdog in his second stint in Chapel Hill, and even though the line’s only -3.5, I don’t see him breaking the streak against a #11 team, on the road, in primetime. Hopefully the off week gave them time to get some things right on both sides of the ball and make it close.
Notre Dame wins, 30-28.
I want to give a huge, massive, gargantuan shout-out to Akil for all his thoughtful answers, analysis, and insight into this North Carolina team, and to the Anderson brothers, who continue to be some of my favorite people in the world and gave some hilarious and fun and hopefully not-too-embarrassing-for-Brian responses to my goofy questions.
Please be sure to follow both Akil and Tar Heel Blog on Twitter for any and all UNC updates before, during, and after Saturday night’s game, and I’d also like to plug Brian’s Tar Heel Sportsman Instagram page again, because there’s plenty of fun content on there for anyone who loves hunting/fishing/general outdoorsy activities.
Also, of course, be sure to go peruse all the great content on the Tar Heel Blog site — including the Q&A I answered for them, where I discuss this fool’s gold-esque season, ND’s own offensive line struggles, which Ted Lasso coach I’d add to the Irish staff, and more!
Welp, that’s everything for this week — as always, Go Irish!!!