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Notre Dame Football VS North Carolina Tar Heels: Analytics Preview

A better, and stylistically different, USC

USC v Notre Dame Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

Notre Dame will take on the North Carolina Tar Heels in another night game at Notre Dame stadium tomorrow. Facing yet another team off of a bye, the Irish look to build off of arguably the best offensive performance last week and take another step forward. Follow along as we give you all of the key stats and numbers you need to know for tomorrow’s game.

North Carolina comes into the game allowing slightly more EPA/Play on the ground than through the air, as well as a higher Success Rate. After last week some people may think this is the perfect opportunity to RTDB. While the Tar Heel secondary is not at all as bad as USC’s and a more balanced approach makes sense, there are a couple of issues with going with an all out ground game. First, last week’s lead was built by very efficient passing and then held by competent rushing. That order is important and we still should be fairly confident Notre Dame is better at passing given how the whole season has played out. If last week was truly a sign of things to come that’s even better and can make this offense more diverse. But with how inefficient they were before last week, we should still give weight to our prior beliefs for at least another week. Second, while they’ve been less efficient defending the run there are some signs that they may be more vulnerable through the air. The Tar Heels posted their lowest coverage grade (48.6) when they played Brennan Armstrong and Virginia, the best Quarterback they’ve faced so far. PFF also gives them higher marks defending the Run (55th in the country) than the pass (73rd).

How Notre Dame attacks them go will, or should, probably be the exact opposite of the gameplan against USC. For starters, the Tar Heels have the 106th ranked Pass Rush in the country, so the necessity for quick game isn’t as high with Coan likely having more time to attack downfield. Also their best defender in coverage is Linebacker Cedric Gray and he’ll likely be tasked with defending Michael Mayer and Kyren Williams on most passing downs. Mayer and Williams are good enough where that may not matter, but the Tar Heels are a lot weaker at the Cornerback position, with Tony Grimes grading out the best with a 65.8 PFF Grade. Kyler McMichael is the other outside Corner and he’s been victimized by the opposition, giving up a 149.4 NFL Passer Rating when targeted and only posting a 40.6 PFF Coverage Grade. Don Chapman rounds out the unit as the Slot Corner with a 61.8 Coverage Grade. All that to say where last week we saw Mayer and Williams lead the team in targets, expect to see the Wide Receivers be targeted heavily this week.

North Carolina comes into the game with pretty mediocre passing production, which is surprising given they have a potential 1st Round Pick under center. A step back from last year was always expected from Sam Howell but being below average in EPA/Pass is something we didn’t see coming. It’s been tough finding an additional weapon for Howell outside of Josh Downs, who similar to Drake London has been excellent and the only truly viable pass catcher on the team. While Antoine Green and Kamari Morales have pretty solid production, the low number of targets is a possible signal they aren’t getting open that often. Their PFF Grades seem to confirm this with Green posting a 58.2 and Morales a 65.5 (Downs is at 81.8). Through that lens you can see the justification for why they’ve leaned on the rushing game. Ty Chandler has been good with 0.11 EPA/Rush and the 2nd highest PFF Grade on the team behind Howell. And Howell adding a very efficient rushing ability to his game has helped keep this offense from regressing even further from last year.

But given how well the Irish defended against USC in the 2nd Half and without Kyle Hamilton, it’s difficult to see how a North Carolina team with less raw talent than USC (according to 247’s Team Talent Rankings) will be able to breakthrough against Marcus Freeman’s unit. The path to victory for the Tar Heels has to involve connecting on some deep balls with Kyle Hamilton out, as well as Howell and Chandler having ridiculously efficient performances on the ground. That will be the biggest test for the defense and we’ll have to see if the big play vulnerability has been closed up, or if there’s an opportunity there for Howell and Co. with Hamilton out for the game.

Jack and I are both taking Notre Dame to win and cover. This line feels a little short, but from a betting perspective the difference between 3.5 and 5.5 is not all that important. The reason it’s probably closer than many expected is despite being pretty unimpressive across the board, the Tar Heels clearly have the better Quarterback and you can never count out the elite talent. With that being said, it shouldn’t matter in this game. Hopefully Tommy Rees has started to hit his stride and doesn’t take away the wrong lessons from last week. Marcus Freeman and the defense were able to correct course against Drake London in the second half and we should see a similar gameplan to defend Josh Downs. And with how well the Irish have played against the run with light boxes all year, it’s tough to bet against that changing drastically now. But no matter what happens, I (Cooper) will still have a lead over Jack in the standings betting the spread and that’s really all that matters.