After finally entering the win column last week in a victory over Cal the Notre Dame Fighting Irish now face the North Carolina Tar Heels in a pivotal road matchup. The Irish will try and notch their first road victory of 2022 against a school they’ve defeated in 20 of their 22 previous matchups. In last season’s 44-34 victory at Notre Dame, the two schools combined for close to 1,100 yards of offense.
North Carolina enters this game with a 3-0 mark and has had two weeks to prepare for the Irish. As productive as the Tar Heel offense has been against lesser opponents, their defense has had major issues keeping teams off the scoreboard. The clearest evidence of that came in their 63-61 win over Appalachian State on Sept. 10. In that contest, North Carolina allowed 40 fourth-quarter points and needed a stop on a two-point conversion to avoid going to overtime.
Below is a look at some of the key matchups for Saturday’s contest:
QB Drew Pyne vs. North Carolina Defense
Pyne had some early jitters against Cal when it came to his touch on the ball. However, when the contest ended, Notre Dame had their first win and Pyne delivered an acceptable performance in which he completed 17 of 23 passes for 150 yards and two scores. Given the holes that have already been exposed in the Tar Heel defense, this week may offer him the opportunity to go deep more often.
Tar Heel defenders are a vulnerable group, allowing 38 points per game against their modest competition. In their last two games, they’ve had major struggles stopping opposing running games and are allowing 275 yards through the air on the season. The Irish running game may have a chance to have their first notable performance, but Pyne’s in a position to deliver as well.
Notre Dame Defense vs. QB Drake Maye
Getting consistent pressure on Maye is vital to keeping him in check, with Isaiah Foskey once again leading the Irish in sacks. One newcomer who emerged against Cal was defensive tackle Jacob Lacey, who collected two sacks. The Tar Heels’ offensive production has had a slight lean toward the passing attack thus far, but Notre Dame can’t ignore North Carolina’s running game.
Maye is following in the footsteps of his father, Mark, who also quarterbacked the Tar Heels during the mid-1980s. The younger Maye saw action in two games last year and this season has completed better than 74 percent of his passes. He’s tossed 11 touchdown passes and only had one pass picked off among his 97 attempts. He’s got the mobility to get around, which means Irish defenders figure to have an active afternoon.
LT Joe Alt vs. JACK Noah Taylor
The Irish offensive line has had some moments of concern during the team’s first three games, allowing seven sacks. in addition, concentration issues plagued them last Saturday, with multiple false start penalties. Alt’s role in protecting Pyne is pivotal to any success, considering he’s responsible for stopping blindside hits that usually lead to turnovers.
Taylor arrived during the offseason as a graduate transfer from Virginia and has made an immediate impact. Building on his past success with the Cavaliers, he’s shown that he can get quickly into opposing backfields and to the quarterback. Since he’ll be charging in from Pyne’s blindside, the onus is on Alt to make sure that he’s on top of his game.
NICKEL TaRiq Bracy vs. WR Josh Downs
In last season’s shootout, Downs caught 10 passes against the Irish, so Bracy will have his work cut out for him. Bracy has had his challenges during his Notre Dame career, but delivered a solid effort against Cal and has the veteran savvy to know what he’s up against in this situation.
After missing the past two games with a knee injury, Downs should be ready to face the Irish. Before going down with that issue, Downs had nine grabs against an overmatched Florida A&M defense. That big start was a continuation of his monster campaign from last year, catching 101 passes for 1,335 yards and eight touchdowns. Not a big target, but has plenty of speed and can move after the catch.
TE Michael Mayer vs. S Giovanni Biggers
Mayer remains a major weapon in the Irish passing attack, despite having only two catches for 10 yards against Cal. One of those grabs was for what turned out to be the winning score, so it’s inevitable that Pyne will make frequent use of Mayer’s talents, just as other Irish signal callers have during his three seasons of action.
Biggers had a big season last year and has already collected 16 tackles for this year. He’s good against the run and has the size to battle with someone like Mayer, which is why his versatility has resulted in him playing multiple positions in the Tar Heel secondary. He’s also dangerous on special teams, blocking two kicks last year.