After their second bye of the 2020 college football season, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish face what’s likely their final remaining challenge. A rare Friday afternoon clash at Chapel Hill to meet the North Carolina Tar Heels put the spotless 8-0 record of the Irish on the line against a team with a potent offense.
Notre Dame should win if history is any clue, having captured 18 of the previous 20 matchups in this series. However, Irish defenders should be prepared for an expected onslaught, with the Tar Heels currently ranking 10th in the nation in scoring, putting up an average of 43.1 points per game.
Below are some of the pivotal matchups to watch:
QB Ian Book vs. North Carolina Defense
Book has yet to have a breakout game this season, preferring to peck away at teams while allowing the Notre Dame running game to keep defenses honest. He’s become much more dangerous as a runner in recent weeks and continues to forge a strong connection with wide receiver Javon McKinley. Given North Carolina’s recent defensive woes, Book has the opportunity to flourish in this contest.
After giving up 45 points in just over 38 minutes against Wake on November 14, North Carolina’s defense suddenly clamped down to help the Tar Heels comeback from a 21-point deficit and win a wild affair, 59-53. For the Tar Heels to spring the upset, they have to fix their leaky run defense and harass Book all afternoon.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Sam Howell
In Notre Dame’s last two games, the Irish pass defense has been tested with 84 throws to gain over 700 yards of offense for opponents. Notre Dame has allowed four touchdown passes during that time, though they’re getting more effective at forcing turnovers, with nine in the last four games, an amount that includes four interceptions.
Howell is in his second season behind center for North Carolina and is putting up numbers similar to what he did as a freshman in 2019. He’s thrown for 2,631 yards and 23 touchdowns and continues to keep his errant throws to the opposition in check with just six picks on the year. He’s thrown 13 scoring tosses in the last three games, including six against Wake Forest on November 14, when he threw for 550 yards.
CB Nick McCloud vs. WR Dyami Brown
McCloud has continued to give the Irish reliable coverage at the corner slot. He’s coming off another effective performance against Boston College, where he knocked away a pair of passes, giving him seven pass deflections on the year. While he only has one pick on the year, he was in the right place in the Clemson win, helping recover a pair of fumbles.
North Carolina has multiple game-breaking wideouts, but Brown is in his second year in that capacity, and in three of his last four games, he’s broken the century mark for yardage. He combines size and speed with sharp cutting ability while also posing a threat after catching the ball by picking up healthy chunks of yardage.
RB Kyren Williams vs. ILB Chazz Surratt
Williams is coming off a quiet game against Boston College, where he only gained 37 yards on the afternoon. However, he’s still averaging 5.7 yards per carry and has twice followed up double-digit rushing efforts with considerable games in the Florida State and Clemson wins. Williams has shown his game-breaking speed plenty of times this year and may do so again against the Tar Heels.
Surratt’s career at Chapel Hill has taken two divergent paths, with his start seeing him as a North Carolina quarterback for two seasons. Last year, he switched to linebacker and has thrived ever since. He leads the Tar Heels in tackles this season with 68 and continues to make his presence felt in enemy backfields with 6.5 tackles-for-loss after collecting 15 last year.
MLB Drew White vs. RB Javonte Williams
White continues to be the defense’s quiet glue, handling the grunt work, which has allowed players like his fellow backer, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah. He plays the run well and tends to deliver in big games, such as his nine tackle performance against Clemson. in that game, the Tigers’ powerhouse back, Travis Etienne, was held to just 28 yards.
Williams stands just 65 yards away from matching his 2019 rushing total and has 15 scores on the season while also averaging 7.2 yards per carry. He’s also a receiving threat out of the backfield with 18 catches on the year. In truth, Williams is part of a dangerous dual-threat for North Carolina, with Michael Carter gaining 807 yards and 7.0 yards per carry. Carter has even more grabs, collecting 21 for the season.