Well folks, it finally happened — your Notre Dame Fighting Irish football team, after 3 weeks of this college football season, picked up the first win of the Marcus Freeman era in ND’s 24-17 victory over the California Golden Bears last weekend.
After the ROUGH 0-2 start (0-3 if we’re talking about the #FreeManera as a whole), it was fantastic to see the good guys pull one out, even if they did give us a few heart attacks and cause for lots of frustration throughout, with plenty of room still left to improve. At the very least, Notre Dame now sits 1-2 on the season with the chance to potentially get back to .500 this weekend while on a road trip to Chapel Hill.
Their opponent, Mack Brown’s North Carolina Tar Heels, boasts a 3-0 record, an offense putting up some video game numbers against some really bad opponents, and a defense giving up some video game numbers against some really bad opponents. So, it’s hard to tell what to think of UNC or whether to view this as a super difficult test, a potential toss-up, a team ND should handle easily, or something in between.
So, to help shed some light on all that, we reached out to Nick Delahanty, Site Expert at Keeping It Heel. He was generous enough to give us the lowdown on Mack Brown as a second-time head coach, Drake Maye as a rising star, Gene Chizik’s struggling defense, the embarrassing lack of men’s basketball/women’s soccer championships from the Heels over the last 5 years, and much more.
Let’s go ahead and dive in, as Nick’s given us a lot to digest here as we prepare for yet another glorious college football Saturday!
1. We’re in year 4 now of Mack Brown’s second stint at the helm of the Tar Heels football program — how are UNC fans feeling about him, what do you think the program’s ceiling is with him as coach, and how do you feel about this season’s outlook with the 3-0 start?
Keeping It Heel: Honestly, I feel as if fans have mixed feelings about Mack Brown at this point. Although I’m sure that the majority of the fan base is happy to have the legendary head coach back in Chapel Hill, I’ve seen plenty of fans showing doubt that Brown is the right guy to lead the program given his current age.
However, Brown and the Tar Heels continue to do well on the recruiting trail, which would make you think that Brown isn’t planning on hanging it up anytime soon. Yes, the defense has struggled mightily early on, but I’m certain that no one is complaining about the 3-0 start to the season.
Personally, I think the Tar Heels could at least be a borderline College Football Playoff team with Brown at the helm. If Drake Maye continues to produce like he has to start his career, you’d have to think that the UNC football program could eventually make a strong push over the next few seasons.
2. Tell us everything we should know about Drake Maye. What makes him so good? Is he better now, and/or going to be better, than Sam Howell? How do you suggest the ND defense try to slow him down?
Keeping It Heel: Ah, speaking of Mr. Maye!
There are a few things that make Drake Maye so good. First of all, he’s fearless. He’s more than willing to use his legs, and isn’t afraid to take a big hit (even though we truly wish he would avoid those!!!). For a redshirt freshman, he possesses a ton of poise and confidence, and has used his weapons around him effectively while keeping everyone involved.
Think about it: even without star wide receiver Josh Down as well as fellow standout receiver Antoine Green, Maye has still been able to get the Tar Heels offense rolling early and often.
Regarding the Howell question- he definitely has the makings of being the next great quarterback at North Carolina. I think it’s too early to say that Maye is better than Howell, but I do believe that it will be an interesting debate once his career in Chapel Hill eventually wraps up.
For Notre Dame’s defense, I think the key is to simply keep him in the pocket and force him (and the Tar Heels) into third and long situations. Maye has done a great job at extending plays outside the pocket, and the Fighting Irish could make that difficult by winning the battle upfront against the Tar Heels offensive line unit.
3. Considering through the first 3 games it seems like UNC has a ton of guys contributing offensively, who are the key skill position guys Irish fans need to know about heading into Saturday? Whose performance will be most important for a UNC victory?
Keeping It Heel: Other than Maye, freshman running back Omarion Hampton should be the key name to watch. Hampton has burst onto the scene right away, and has provided a steady boost in the team’s running attack.
Although 10 different Tar Heels have hauled in passes from Maye through three games, if we’re looking at names other than Downs and Green (who both may play Saturday), look no further than Kobe Paysour and Kamari Morales.
Paysour is yet another freshman who has stepped up as the team dealt with some key injuries. Right now, he’s the lone Tar Heel with more than 10 receptions, as he’s created some nice chemistry with his redshirt freshman quarterback.
Like the old saying “the tight end is a quarterback’s best friend,” Morales has stepped up early on in his senior season. He’s served as a nice security blanket for Maye, and is a guy the Fighting Irish’s defense must keep an eye on.
This may be surprising (please note my sarcasm) but it’s up to the defense to win this one. I can’t just single out one player, so I’ll give you a position: the secondary. The defensive line should get enough pressure, but it’s up to the secondary to not allow Notre Dame to throw the ball all over the field.
4. It’s early, but the UNC defense ranks among the worst in college football so far this year, especially when looking at Power 5 schools. What are their biggest issues there, and is there anything they do particularly well and/or any key guys who could still show out this weekend despite the unit’s dysfunction?
Keeping It Heel: When Gene Chizik returned to campus, everyone expected that the defensive woes from a season ago would instantly go away…
Unfortunately, Rome wasn’t built in a day!
I think the biggest issue is that they allow too many big plays. It seems like every time something good happens, the defense simply can’t get a stop.
Although the defense as a whole hasn’t been great, the linebacker trio of Cedric Gray, Power Echols and Noah Taylor have been very good. For me, I want to see more out of the team’s corners (Tony Grimes, Storm Duck, etc.) and I think this could be a week that we could see them make some big plays.
5. Which players/position groups on the Notre Dame side scare you in this match-up? Do you think UNC matches up well with the Irish?
Keeping It Heel: As I’m a New Jersey native (and a St. Joseph Regional High School graduate), I had the pleasure of watching Audric Estime completely dominate at the high school level in one of the toughest conferences in the entire country. Heading into this matchup, Estime is the guy that scares me the most, as I really think he could be in line for yet another big game this week.
I really do think the Tar Heels match up well with Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish are still trying to figure out their offensive identity, and I believe it’s a good time for North Carolina to face them, especially after having two weeks to prepare for the game.
6. FAN QUESTION: There are 5 year olds who haven’t seen a UNC Men’s Basketball championship or a UNC Women’s Soccer championship. Is the entire athletic department a failure?
Keeping It Heel: Oh stop it, those five-year-olds will see the Men’s Basketball team win a national championship this year.
To add to that, the Women’s Soccer team is very impressive to watch. Don’t be surprised if they make a strong run in postseason play.
7. FAN QUESTION: Gene Chizik? Send tweet.
Keeping It Heel: Give Chizik some time! There’s a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball, and Chizik has proven that he knows how to operate a defense.
Let’s come back to this one in a year or two.
8. FAN QUESTION: Ask if they’re up for a real challenge, and put blindfolds on everyone playing defense. I bet those cowards won’t do it
Keeping It Heel: I thought the Tar Heels defense had blindfolds on through the first three weeks of the season?! What did I miss?!
Fortunately, the Fighting Irish won’t wear those green jerseys they wore last week. If they brought those to Chapel Hill, I think we all would prefer to wear blindfolds for this one!
9. FAN QUESTION: North Carolina’s Rameses has horns. Duke’s Blue Devil has horns. Is it fair to describe the people of the great state of NC as horn-y? What are the most common kinks in the Tar Heel state (this is a safe space, no kink shaming)?
Keeping It Heel: Wow… this question is…. Interesting.
People on the internet have way too much time on their hands… I’m going to skip this one!
10. Where does the Roy Williams entering-the-locker-room-celebration GIF rank among your favorite sports GIFs of all-time?
Keeping It Heel: Top two but it’s not two.
11. Alright, time to get down to it: what’s your prediction for this game? Who wins, what’s the final score, and give your reasoning why.
Keeping It Heel: Alright here we go…
This game will come down to the wire. I’m going to have to roll with the Tar Heels, especially after I doubted them against Appalachian State (poor decision on my end, I know).
I’ll say UNC wins 35-21. Downs returns with a big game, while Estime scores twice to lead the Fighting Irish offense.
I expect this to be a really good game, and I’m hoping the defense could simply make some stops!!!
Although I hope he’s wrong about the game’s results, I wanna send a huge thank you to Nick for giving us such thorough and fun answers to our per-usual varying array of serious and disturbing questions.
I highly suggest you all go visit the Keeping It Heel site for any and all UNC insight and analysis heading into Saturday.
Additionally, definitely go follow the Keeping It Heel Twitter account as well as Nick, as they’ll both be excellent options for anyone seeking hard-hitting and late-breaking news and analysis on the Tar Heels before, during, and after the game.
Alrighty, that’s it for this portion of the Q&A — I’m working on a special surprise Part 2 courtesy of our favorite band of brothers of a certain North Carolina offensive lineman, and hope to get that to you all shortly for some additional insider info prior to the game.
Until then, Go Irish, Beat Tar Heels!!!