Notre Dame looks to improve to 7-1 on the season on Saturday night under the lights of Notre Dame Stadium against North Carolina while playing without their best player, All-American Kyle Hamilton. The Tar Heels are one of the most disappointing teams in the country after starting the season in the top-10 and limping into the contest with a 4-3 record, but they still have Sam Howell at quarterback, and the Irish won’t have their All-American.
What Worries Me This Week
Replacing Kyle Hamilton
Notre Dame played the 2nd half of last year’s win over North Carolina without Hamilton following his ejection for targeting, so the Irish have experience slowing down Howell and the Tar Hell offense without Hamilton. The difference between last year and this year is North Carolina will have an entire week to gameplan around the Irish not having Hamilton, not just half-time as they did a year ago.
DJ Brown has played very well this year in limited action after his brutal missed tackle against Florida State, but replacing Kyle Hamilton is a tall task. Marcus Freeman will have to cook up something good this week to slow down Howell and the Tar Heels. The good news for Notre Dame is that North Carolina’s offense is not nearly as prolific as it was a year ago, and the Irish did alright then, albeit with a different defensive coordinator.
No matter how good Brown or any other safety has played, it’s always a concern when you have to play without your best player.
Sam Howell’s Running Ability
North Carolina is calling a lot more designed runs for Sam Howell this year – somewhat out of necessity. Officially, Howell has 494 yards rushing, but that includes a lot of lost yardage from sacks – UNC has given up 27 sacks for a loss of 166. Notre Dame struggled with mobile quarterbacks this year, including just three weeks ago on the road in Blacksburg. Braxton Burmeister converted multiple third downs with his legs against the Irish defense, including that critical third and 15 that he scored on.
Combine Howell’s newfound running skills with the loss of Hamilton this week, and there’s some reason to be concerned about North Carolina’s ability to put up points on the Irish tomorrow.
Sustainability of the “new” offense
Notre Dame found something last week with their new tempo offense with Jack Coan at the helm, but how sustainable is that without the threat of a vertical passing game? Notre Dame still took some shots downfield against USC, but they weren’t successful on any of them, and Coan has struggled to push the ball downfield over the last several weeks.
I’d expect North Carolina to try and clog up passing lanes and dare Notre Dame to complete some passes downfield. The UNC defense is bad, and with some of the weapons, Notre Dame has, the Irish should still be able to complete a bunch of those short passes, but will they be able to string together as many long, sustained drives again this week? I am a little skeptical unless the Irish offense can hit some shot plays.
What Doesn’t Worry Me This Week
The Notre Dame offensive line
It took a lot longer than anyone would have liked, but the Irish offensive line is starting to play well. With some continuity from week to week, the line has stabilized. As a result, the right side of the line, which hasn’t changed personnel, has settled in. Josh Lugg and Cain Maddens struggled at the start of the season but have quietly turned in quality performances the last couple of weeks.
I still worry a little bit about the line’s ability to create a significant push in the run game with Coan in the game since Coan poses no threat to ever keep the ball. I don’t worry nearly as much about their ability to give Coan and Buchner time to pass when they drop back, though.
North Carolina coming off the bye week
A lot has been made about North Carolina coming off of a bye week and having additional time to prepare for Notre Dame. Well, Wisconsin had a bye before playing Notre Dame. So did Virginia Tech and USC. However, it didn’t result in any of them beating the Irish. Cincinnati had a bye before handing Notre Dame its only loss of the season. Still, that outcome had more to do with the mistake the Irish made versus anything new that Cincy sprung on the Irish because they had an extra week to prepare.
Notre Dame has played well against teams coming off of bye weeks in recent years and has won 37 straight games over unranked opponents in general.
Notre Dame cooking up something to limit the damage Howell does
While there is reason to be concerned about what Sam Howell could do against the Irish, I feel like Marcus Freeman will be able to scheme something up that slows them down enough to limit the damage. It just might frustrate the hell out of us in the process.
Last week it felt like USC was marching up and down the field at times and that Drake London was unstoppable. But the Trojans scored just three points over the first three quarters, and the Irish held USC to their lowest point total of the season. So while it was frustrating at the time, it was effective in its results.
Players to Watch This Week
- Braden Lenzy – He finally got his jet sweep last week. Can we get some deep shots called for him now? Notre Dame is under-utilizing his speed right now.
- Jordan Botelho – Brian Kelly gave a somewhat cryptic answer to a question on Botelho this week that hinted he might see the field more soon
- Kevin Austin – He’s had some brutal drops over the last few games, but it also feels like he’s on the verge of a monster game soon too. North Carolina’s defense might be the perfect opportunity for that
- Chris Tyree – It sounds like he is a game time decision after missing last week. If he plays, this feels like the week he finally rips off a long run this year
- Tyler Buchner – Will we see an expansion of his package/snap count this week?
- Isaiah Pryor – He played a lot against Purdue when Notre Dame used a lot of dime looks and they could do the same this week
- Tariq Bracy – He got a game ball last week and will be called on a lot again this week.
I started this week feeling bad about this game, but as the week has progressed and I’ve done a bit more research into the Tar Heels, this one no longer feels as potentially scary. Outside of Sam Howell, there isn’t a lot scary on this Tar Heel team, and Notre Dame is just starting to play its best football. I expect the game to be close at half-time but for the Irish to pull away in the second half and win relatively comfortably.
Notre Dame 38, North Carolina 24