Notre Dame will play a second consecutive home night game this Saturday when North Carolina comes to South Bend. While it hasn't been pretty at times, the Irish are at 6-1 and are coming off what may have been their most complete performance of the season, a 31-16 victory over USC.
It has certainly not been the season North Carolina supporters were hoping for as the Tar Heels stand at 4-3 (3-3 ACC) and Mack Brown's team enters a difficult stretch of games with Wake Forest and Pittsburgh to follow. Like many of Notre Dame's opponents this fall, UNC is coming into the game off an open date, giving the Heels extra time to prepare for this critical next 11 days.
Notre Dame has a 19-2 edge in the series and won in Chapel Hill late in 2020, 31-17. UNC's last win in this series, a 29-24 home victory in 2008, was vacated.
North Carolina at No. 11 Notre Dame
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 30 at 7:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Notre Dame -3.5
When North Carolina Has the Ball
For the second week in a row, Notre Dame will face an offense with a talented quarterback that relies heavily on one receiver. This week it is Sam Howell, who presents some challenges that USC's Kedon Slovis did not. Howell, with 494 rushing yards this season, is much more of a threat to run the ball, and he also likes to push the ball downfield a bit more. However, his primary target is Josh Downs, a slot receiver who has 60 of UNC's 131 receptions and gets much of his yardage after the catch. The Howell from 2020 who would throw deep to Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome has changed his ways to fit this year's offense.
While part of the problem with the vertical passing game is finding downfield threats on this team, another is the line struggling to protect for a long enough period of time. Carolina is 127th in America allowing 3.86 sacks per game. The rushing numbers have been solid, especially in the past two games, but Howell continues to be harassed. Downs is an immense talent who is often open, but he's usually the first check and Howell knows he needs to get rid of the ball quickly on most occasions.
That will probably be the strategy this week as well because Notre Dame can pressure the quarterback. Defensive end Isaiah Foskey is tied for second nationally with eight sacks, and Notre Dame has 19 as a team. The Irish will be without star safety Kyle Hamilton due to a knee injury suffered against USC. While Notre Dame did hold USC to 16 points and the game plan may be similar, tackling is of the highest priority on Saturday. The Irish missed a number of tackles last week and Downs will make you pay if he's not corralled immediately.
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
The Irish offensive staff decided to push the tempo and implemented RPOs last week, and it worked very well. Quarterback Jack Coan made the correct reads on most occasions and delivered the ball where it needed to be on time. Furthermore, the running game flourished in this setup as the Irish ran for 170 yards, 138 from Kyren Williams.
The quicker decisions helped an offensive line that has had its share of problems so far this season. But changes made on the left side — Andrew Kristofic being inserted at guard and Joe Alt taking over at tackle — have also paid dividends. The line is still a work in progress and is in no way similar to the 2020 group, but steps forward are being taken.
Because of this change in philosophy, expect North Carolina to crowd the line defensively. Rushing attacks have given the Tar Heels problems in recent weeks and they need to disrupt Notre Dame's running and quick passing game. Stretching the field is not a strength for Coan, and Carolina may want to tempt the Irish into taking risks, especially since their seven interceptions show that the Heels can take passes away from the other team. UNC is not a big pressure team, but against Notre Dame, that may not matter much. It will be about stopping the run and getting in the passing lanes.
The week off certainly gave the North Carolina coaching staff time to reassess why the team is 4-3 and how they can attack the last five games. An ACC Coastal Division title and hence a shot at a conference championship is now out of the question, so Brown has to get his players to adjust their goals for the remainder of the season. Getting ready to play Notre Dame should never be a problem for any team, but it's also a situation that the Irish face on a week-to-week basis. This year, they've also dealt with teams having an extra week to prepare. But this game is a little different in that Notre Dame is coming off a very emotional battle against its archrival. Can they bring the same focus two weeks in a row?
I would expect a bit of a sluggish start with Carolina getting out to an early lead. But head coach Brian Kelly stressed physicality against USC and that should be the mantra again this week. Notre Dame is the stronger, more physical team, and that will win out in the second half. The Irish have figured out ways to win close games this year and they will do so again.
Prediction: Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 28
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— Written by Jon Kinne, who has been part of the Athlon Contributor Network for three years, covering the ACC and Notre Dame. Follow him on Twitter @JonRKinne.