With one game left before the Notre Dame Fighting Irish begin their bye week, building on a strong 4-1 start should serve as enough motivation against the injury-plagued North Carolina Tar Heels. While the Irish rushing offense is in high gear, the fact is that Brandon Wimbush’s status is questionable for the game. However, facing a school that’s allowed 33 points per game during their 1-4 start is something that could help cushion that potential absence.
Listed below are some key matchups to watch for Saturday afternoon’s contest:
Josh Adams vs. Jonathan Smith
Adams left the Miami (Ohio) game with an ankle injury in the second quarter after racking up 159 yards that including two huge scoring runs. Given that Notre Dame was in complete control of the contest, there was no sense bringing him back in the game, so the expectation is that he’ll be ready to face North Carolina.
Situated at middle linebacker for the Tar Heels is Jonathan Smith, who took over for Andre Smith after two games when the latter Smith suffered a season-ending injury. Jonathan Smith has put up modest numbers since ascending to the starting lineup. Regardless of whether Adams answers the call or the main ballcarrier is Dexter Williams or Deon McIntosh, Smith will have his hands full with the re-energized Irish running game.
Nyles Morgan vs. Jordon Brown/Michael Carter
Morgan continues to have a strong season, with the Irish rushing defense having allowed just one touchdown in the first five games. Leading the way with 41 tackles is Morgan, who has also managed to make his presence felt against opposing passers and has also forced a fumble.
Brown and Carter have amassed two-thirds of the Tar Heel rushing yardage this year and crossed the goal line a total of eight times. Brown also happens to lead North Carolina in receptions with 20, which will make him the key player among this duo to watch.
Equanimeous St. Brown vs. M.J. Stewart
After being under the radar in the first three games of 2017, St. Brown has begun to emerge and is hopefully poised to recapture the magic that made him one of last season’s few bright spots. Over the past two games, he’s had seven grabs for 103 yards. Against Miami on Saturday, he caught all three of his passes on a single drive, including his second touchdown reception. His defender was also flagged for pass interference on another play during that series.
Stewart passed up the chance to enter the NFL Draft last April and remains one of the standouts in the North Carolina secondary. At 6-feet and 205 pounds, Stewart gives away five inches in height to St. Brown, though he tends to be active all around the field. He’s matured from some early missteps in his collegiate career and has five pass breakups, four tackles-for-loss and even a pair of sacks so far this year.
Notre Dame Defense vs. Chazz Surratt
Picking up four victories in the first five games has been the byproduct of solid defense that’s helped the Irish limit touchdowns when opposing squads reach the red zone. Forcing turnovers has also been helped the Notre Dame offense convert those opposing mistakes into 70 points.
Surratt has thrown for nearly 1,000 yards and is also mobile enough to make things dicey for Irish defenders. He’s only thrown two interceptions in his 128 pass attempts, though he sometimes forces the ball into coverage when pressed. Keeping the pressure on throughout the game will limit his chances of having a say in manufacturing an upset.
Tommy Kraemer/Robert Hainsey vs. Malik Carney
The tandem of Kraemer and Hainsey continue to improve in sharing time at right tackle They’ll be facing a player who ranks among the best among North Carolina defenders at trapping ballcarriers behind the line. Improvement when it comes to reducing the number of false starts since the start of the season for Notre Dame is one indication of the duo’s success, with another simply being the team’s offensive output.
Carney has shown the ability this year to either get to the quarterback or makes things difficult for them, collecting 1.5 sacks and a trio of quarterback hurries. Since protecting Wimbush is part of the job description for Kraemer and Hainsey, keeping him – or Ian Book in potentially his first career start – upright and mobile means keeping Carney in check.
The hope is that during the early evening hours of Saturday, the Irish will be sporting a 5-1 record and with two weeks to prepare for what’s likely to be their stiffest challenge of the season. That would be the USC Trojans, who saw their dream of an undefeated season end with a loss at conference rival Washington State last Friday and can’t afford another defeat. Otherwise, their national title hopes disappear.
The Trojans are looking to regroup with a pair of home games next on their schedule. This Saturday, they host Oregon State, followed by an October 14 clash against Utah. Notre Dame can’t afford another loss either if they want to be in consideration for the national title. The Irish have won three of the last five meetings in this longstanding rivalry, including the last two in South Bend.