Now holding a 6-1 record, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish continue to try and claw their way back into the college football playoff discussion. They’ll face a North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday night, who like other teams this season, has the benefit of a bye week before their meeting with the Irish.
Led by head coach Mack Brown, the Tar Heels have a 4-3 record and bring their high-powered offensive attack to the Golden Dome. North Carolina is currently averaging 36.9 points per game and has broken the 40-point threshold three times in 2021. However, their defense does have some definite flaws, allowing 28.9 points per game, including 42 in a victory over the Miami Hurricanes.
QB Jack Coan vs. North Carolina Defense
With the exception of a few cameo appearances by Tyler Buchner, Coan handled things behind center against Southern Cal. It seems clear that Kelly will use Buchner in select instances, especially when a run is called for, but Coan figures to continue being the chief leader. He only has 11 touchdown passes but has only thrown one interception in his last five games.
The Tar Heels have been weaker when it comes to stopping the run, though Virginia’s passing attack shredded them for 553 yards and four touchdown passes last month. There’s plenty for Coan to exploit here, with North Carolina’s inconsistency indicated by the 81 points they allowed in two of their wins. Keeping their top defenders in line should help make that happen.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Sam Howell
Southern Cal actually outgained Notre Dame, despite the Irish winning by 15 points. However, the Notre Dame pass rush continued to impress and actually forced both of the Trojans’ turnovers on the night. The Irish defense has an even bigger challenge trying to neutralize Howell, who can light things up and can also move. Another night of pressuring the quarterback would help make victory much easier.
Howell is in his third year and is again putting up big numbers. He’s not a signal-caller who makes a lot of mistakes and also serves as one of the chief running threats for North Carolina. Last year, it took one quarter for Notre Dame to get a handle on him, with Brian Kelly hoping that this year’s learning curve comes much more quickly.
LG Andrew Kristofic vs. DT Myles Murphy
Kristofic’s insertion into the starting lineup has coincided with the revamped line showing some serious improvement after their disastrous start. He hadn’t seen all that much time on the field prior to that promotion, though he’s got the good size that will be needed to keep Murphy from causing havoc.
After a relatively mild first year with North Carolina last year, Murphy has developed into a force up front for the Tar Heels. He’s collected four sacks and been a part of nine stops behind the line, both numbers that lead this unit. That ability to move comes with the bulk needed to compete against the Notre Dame line.
CB Cam Hart vs. WR Josh Downs
Hart had a busy night trying to contain Southern Cal’s Drake London, who caught 15 passes, though Hart kept him out of the end zone. It wasn’t a perfect night, though Hart has no time to dwell on the performance, given how popular a target Downs figures to be on Saturday evening. One difference in this game is that Hart will hold the height advantage over the smaller Downs.
Downs is not a big target at 5-feet -10, but he’s definitely Howell’s favorite, with 60 grabs in North Carolina’s first seven games. Some of the most noticeable aspects of his 2021 numbers are that he’s had at least eight catches in every game and has scored at least one touchdown in each contest. He’s got plenty of speed, which makes him a deep threat to keep an eye on during the game.
LT Joe Alt vs. OLB Tomon Fox
Like Kristofic, Alt’s elevation to a starting role has provided the Notre Dame offensive line with the consistency that’s been needed. He’s a huge specimen at 6-foot-8 and 305 pounds and his main goals will not only be to open up holes for the Irish running game but also protect Coan’s blind side. Despite playing tight end in high school, he’s adapted quickly to his new role as a true freshman, a positive sign for the future.
Fox has seemingly been at North Carolina forever, giving him plenty of experience with the Tar Heels. He’s got impressive size for an outside linebacker and is quick enough to stop runners before they reach the line of scrimmage. He also knows how to get to the quarterback with 25 career sacks to his credit.