Win and advance is usually the name of the game late in the season for football teams, but Notre Dame finds itself in that situation in week 4. Facing an early season identity crisis, the Irish simply need to get a win on the road today to get back to .500 and head into a much-needed bye week. That’s easier said than done, however, when your opponent has the firepower to put up points in bunches. So can the Irish pull it off?
What Worries Me This Week
Drake Maye breaking off big runs. Notre Dame struggled to contain Cal quarterback Jack Plummer last week. UNC QB Drake Maye is a much more accomplished runner and better athlete. Maye is credited with 146 yards on the season, including 19 yards lost on sacks. Without them removed, he is averaging 8.25 yards per attempt. Considering Plummer entered last week’s contest with -26 yards on the ground and did what he did, Notre Dame has to be much more disciplined this week to contain Maye.
Perhaps Notre Dame didn’t think Plummer could burn them with his legs and figured they could live with it if he did. They certainly can’t feel the same this week, so I would expect to see Notre Dame have some sort of spy in place to contain Maye. Still, it’s a big concern for the Irish this week.
Notre Dame’s linebackers. The one unit on defense that has struggled each week is the linebacking corps which many felt would be a strength. Marist Liufau hasn’t picked up where he left off before his injury last year, while JD Bertrand, Jack Kiser, and Bo Bauer have struggled after positions and roles were shuffled in the off-season. Youngsters like Prince Kollie and Junior Tuihalamaka have played some, but not much. That could change if the veterans continue to struggle.
Marist Liufau’s breakout game in 2020 came on the road in Chapel Hill, so maybe today is just what Liufau needs to break out again, but so far, the linebacking corps hasn’t given a lot of indication that they’re ready to do so. With Bertrand out for the first half for his inexplicable targeting penalty last weekend, Notre Dame desperately needs someone to step up here.
2 Weeks for UNC to prepare. We haven’t even gotten out of September yet, and Notre Dame is already facing an ACC team coming off a bye week. Just a really impressive commitment to getting ACC teams extra weeks to prepare for Notre Dame by the ACC schedule makers. In years past, the advantage of the bye week hasn’t been a huge factor for ACC teams, but given Notre Dame is still figuring itself out this year, it’s a worry for me this week.
North Carolina’s high-powered offense was shut down by Notre Dame in 2020 but had some success last year in a loss in South Bend. With an extra week to prepare, UNC OC Paul Longo could cook up a great game plan for the Tar Heels.
Expanding the offensive game plan enough. Notre Dame can’t win a shootout against North Carolina, but they will have to score points this weekend. They’ll probably have to score the most points they have all season to come out with the win. To do that, they’ll need to expand the game plan well beyond what they ran in the second half against Cal. Even though North Carolina’s defense is worse than the Bears’, the second half is on tape, and Carolina will be ready for it.
Carolina’s defense has many more weaknesses than Cal’s – especially in terms of their pass defense – but we haven’t yet seen this offense, regardless of quarterback, be able to push the ball downfield this season. If Pyne can consistently hit medium routes today, Notre Dame will score more than enough points to win. If he can’t, it could be a long afternoon.
What Doesn’t Worry Me This Week
Notre Dame getting pressure. The way for Notre Dame to neutralize the UNC offense is to get to Drake Maye early and often without having to send many crazy blitzes. The good news is UNC’s offensive line has not been a strength for the Tar Heels this year. In their one contest against a solid opponent, Appalachian State, the Tar Heels didn’t grade out well in pass protection. PFF gave Carolina a 50.7 grade against the Mountaineers in a 63-61 shootout win. Right tackle Spencer Rolland gave up two sacks to App State – maybe this is the week that Rylie Mills gets going.
Even if Mills isn’t the one to get going, we saw the Notre Dame defensive line come alive in a big way last weekend against Cal. Jayson Ademilola, Isaiah Foskey, and Jacob Lacey lived in the Cal backfield. Howard Cross has been active every week and leads Notre Dame in tackles. The Irish defensive line should have a strong afternoon.
Containing the non-QB run game. On paper, the North Carolina run game looks relatively strong, but their stats are aided by a 314-yard performance against mightly Florida A&M in week 0. The Tar Heels topped 200 against App State and were just below the 200-yard mark against Georgia Southern. Despite the yardage, their run block grades haven’t been strong all year long. Facing a defense like Notre Dame’s for the first time this year, the yardage should continue to drop. Notre Dame’s tackling has been suspect at times this year, so there remains the possibility for UNC to pop a long run, but overall, the advantage in the trenches should help the Irish contain the Tar Heel ground game.
Notre Dame running the ball. Going back to that App State game – since their other two games are Florida A&M and Georgia Southern – North Carolina had trouble with the run. PFF graded the Tar Heel defense at 48.8 for run defense in the contest. Notre Dame, meanwhile, finally started to find its run game in the second half against Cal. I expect Notre Dame to build on that this weekend behind Chris Tyree, Audric Estime, and Logan Diggs.
I don’t know that we’ll see a Notre Dame rushing performance of old where the Irish rip off 200+ yards on the ground, but they will be able to run the ball on a very suspect North Carolina defense.
Players to Watch
- Drew Pyne – Can he get off to a fast start this weekend now that he has a start and win under his belt?
- Marist Liufau – Can he use this came as a launching off point the way he used the UNC game in 2020?
- Rylie Mills – I think this is the week we see the reason for the pre-season hype.
- Lorenzo Styles – He’s made some plays this year but no big, splashy ones. If there was a week for that to happen, it’s this week with UNC’s defense.
- Tobias Merriweather – He got a few snaps last week, but will that expand this weekend even more?
- Brandon Joseph – He hasn’t made too many big plays for the Irish defense so far. Can this be the weekend with Notre Dame in desperate need of a turnover?
- Jacob Lacey – He’s had big moments in his career but hasn’t strung together back-to-back big games before. Can he build off last week’s 2-sack performance?
- Logan Diggs – He’s back this week, but Notre Dame found something with the one-two punch of Chris Tyree and Audric Estime, so it’ll be interesting to see if Notre Dame goes back to an equal distribution of carries between the three.
Heading into the season, this was a game that I felt Notre Dame would win by 10+. The media keeps trying to make North Carolina under Mack Brown a thing, but it’s just not. Carolina has been a middling ACC team under Brown so far, and it doesn’t seem like they will be anything else other than that again. Notre Dame, however, we all know, has played well below expectations which makes this one much more difficult to predict. If Notre Dame plays like they did a week ago against Cal, they’ll lose today. Carolina has too much firepower for Notre Dame to win if they only score 24 points again. However, I think we’ll see a much more settled-down Drew Pyne, and the Irish passing game will look respectable for the first time this year. It might not be pretty at times, but in the end, Notre Dame will win.
Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 28