A Black Friday showdown between Notre Dame and North Carolina headlines a busy post-Thanksgiving slate in the 2020 college football season. The Fighting Irish ranked second in the first release of the CFB Playoff top 25, but Friday’s matchup against the Tar Heels is arguably their toughest remaining game until a likely ACC Championship rematch against Clemson. North Carolina checked in at No. 19 in the first release of the CFB Playoff rankings on Tuesday night.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 season has been unusual in many respects, and that’s definitely the case at Notre Dame. For the first time in program history, the Fighting Irish are playing as a member of a conference for an entire season. The arrangement with the ACC has worked out well for both parties. Notre Dame had a massive showdown against Clemson on Nov. 7, which coach Brian Kelly’s team won 47-40 in double overtime. That victory headlines the 8-0 mark, with six of those wins coming by 14 or more points. Both sides of the ball deserve credit for the perfect record. Behind quarterback Ian Book and one of the nation’s top offensive lines, the Fighting Irish average 6.3 yards a play. Defensively, this team ranks first in the ACC in fewest points allowed a game (16.6).
North Carolina is a program trending up under Mack Brown’s watch. While the Tar Heels stumbled in close losses to Florida State and Virginia, this team has a chance to make some noise down the stretch, especially with Friday’s game versus Notre Dame and the Dec. 12 matchup at Miami. Behind quarterback Sam Howell and a dynamic group of playmakers, North Carolina ranks second in the ACC in scoring (43.1 ppg). However, the defense is giving up 30.8 points a contest and surrendered 31 points in the loss to Florida State and 44 to Virginia.
North Carolina and Notre Dame have met only four times since 2005. The Fighting Irish hold a commanding 18-2 lead in the overall series. The Tar Heels have lost eight of their last nine matchups to Notre Dame.
No. 2 Notre Dame at No. 19 North Carolina
Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 27 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Notre Dame -4.5
When North Carolina Has the Ball
North Carolina’s high-powered offense has been firing on all cylinders this year. Under the direction of coordinator Phil Longo, this unit leads the ACC in yards per play (7.7), ranks second in scoring (43.1), and first in passing plays of 40 yards or more (12). The Tar Heels have scored more than 50 points in back-to-back games, including wins over Duke (56-24) and Wake Forest (59-53).
Quarterback Sam Howell is the catalyst for North Carolina’s offense and one of the top signal-callers in the nation. After a standout freshman campaign, Howell is on pace for an even better encore. He’s thrown for 2,631 yards and 23 touchdowns to just six picks and is averaging 328.9 passing yards a game (up from 280.1 in 2019). Howell is lethal with accuracy (67.7) and leads all ACC quarterbacks with 12 completions of 40 yards or more. Helping Howell to drive one of the top passing games in college football is a deep receiving corps, anchored by Dyami Brown (45 catches) and Dazz Newsome (34). Both players are capable of hitting the big plays or making the sure catch. Khafre Brown (12), Beau Corrales (13), and Emery Simmons (11) round out the secondary weapons.
While most of the attention on North Carolina’s offense surrounds the passing attack, the ground game is just as effective. The one-two punch of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams is underrated, as this duo has gashed opponents for 1,675 rushing yards and 19 scores. Williams has been responsible for 15 of those rushing touchdowns, and both players provide plenty of pop on the ground as they enter Friday’s game averaging over seven yards per rush.
Considering the firepower on North Carolina’s sideline, it’s no secret Notre Dame’s defense is going to have a tough time finding ways to limit the damage on the scoreboard. Coordinator Clark Lea has had two weeks to prepare, so this group could throw some different looks at Howell. The Fighting Irish lead the ACC in scoring defense (16.6 ppg) and rank third in yards per play allowed (4.88). This unit also ranks first against the run (85.1 ypg allowed) and second in pass efficiency defense. Lea’s defense has limited the big plays allowed (just six of 40-plus yards), and as evidenced by the win over Clemson, is capable of timely takeaways or pressure. Safety Kyle Hamilton and linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah are two playmakers that need to have a good game for Notre Dame to slow down the Tar Heels.
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
Notre Dame’s offense has been steady all season, but also seems to be hitting its stride at the right time. Under new play-caller Tommy Rees, this unit is averaging 6.3 yards per play and posted 7.23 yards a snap in the win over Boston College. Rees has helped the offense find ways to mix and match the right personnel and limit some of the weaknesses this unit has at receiver. Most importantly, the Fighting Irish aren’t going to make many mistakes on this side of the ball. Through eight games, they’ve had just eight lost turnovers.
Success for Notre Dame’s offense starts up front. The offensive line is among the best in college football, as quarterbacks have been sacked just 13 times, and the ground game is averaging 5.2 yards per carry. However, this unit will be down two starters on Friday. Center Jarrett Patterson is out for the remainder of 2020 due to a foot injury, and guard Tommy Kraemer will miss this contest due to an appendectomy. Despite the missing pieces, the foundation is in place to win the battle up front. North Carolina’s run defense has been a weak spot all year, surrendering 151.9 yards per game and 4.1 per carry. The Tar Heels have held three opponents under 100 rushing yards, but five of their last six opponents eclipsed 177. Rees will test this group once again, as Kyren Williams (777 yards), Chris Tyree (334), and C’Bo Flemister (293) are likely to get their opportunities. The matchup in the trenches is a good way for Notre Dame to move the ball, but also to keep Howell on the sidelines.
Quarterback Ian Book isn’t going to match Howell’s passing totals this year, but the senior continues to provide steady play and leadership. Book has passed for 1,818 yards and 11 touchdowns to just one pick through eight matchups. He’s also rushed for 364 yards and six scores, and his ability to slide around in the pocket and make plays on third downs with his legs is a valuable asset for this offense. With Chase Claypool catching passes for the Steelers, the Fighting Irish lack a clear No. 1 target for Book. However, the receiving corps is getting better with each snap, and tight ends Michael Mayer (21 catches) and Tommy Tremble (15) provide additional options to Javon McKinley (24), Avery Davis (18), and Ben Skowronek (14).
For North Carolina’s defense to get off the field on Friday, stopping the run and winning up front is the top priority. If the Tar Heels get Book into third-and-longs and can test the new members up front, that’s a win for coordinator Jay Bateman’s defense. North Carolina is giving up 5.7 yards per snap, is tied for 12th with 11 plays of 40 or more yards allowed, and surrenders 30.8 points a game, so there’s plenty of vulnerability here. Also, this group has forced just nine takeaways and ranks last in the ACC in red-zone defense. Some help could be on the way in the form of cornerbacks Kyler McMichael and Storm Duck returning from injury to play on Friday.
This is just the second time in 21 meetings both North Carolina and Notre Dame will be ranked when the game kicks off. And there’s no doubt this is the must-see matchup on Black Friday and one of the best games of Week 13. Whichever team can establish the tempo and flow is likely to come out on top. Can the Tar Heels push the pace to allow Sam Howell and his talented group of playmakers to jump out to an early lead? A high-scoring game would favor Mack Brown’s team. On the other side, the Fighting Irish would probably prefer to slow things down with the ground game and see if their offensive line can assert itself early. Doing so would allow Notre Dame to limit Howell’s opportunities and prevent this game from getting into a back-and-forth shootout. One defensive stop or turnover might decide this one. Notre Dame did exactly that against Clemson in overtime, and the guess here is Kelly’s team finds a way to escape Chapel Hill with a close victory.
Prediction: Notre Dame 34, North Carolina 31
Podcast: Week 13 Preview and Predictions + Interview with Kirk Herbstreit