It wasn't pretty, but it wasn't a loss.
Marcus Freeman picked up his first win at the helm of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish last week in a gut-wrenching 24-17 nail-biter over the California Golden Bears, and they'll look to even their record at 2-2 when they head south to Chapel Hill to square off with the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday afternoon.
A dreary and scoreless first quarter of nine drives — encapsulated by seven straight three-and-outs to open the game, followed by a missed field goal and a fumble — gave way to a second quarter where Cal took a 10-7 lead into the half. The two sides then alternated third-quarter touchdowns and Notre Dame rallied with 10 straight fourth-quarter points and broke up a last-second Hail Mary to seal the Fighting Irish's first win of the 2022 campaign.
Meanwhile, characterizing the start to 2022 for Notre Dame as a roller coaster would be an understatement for North Carolina despite the Tar Heels' 3-0 record to begin the season. The Tar Heels opened with a dominant 56-24 Week 0 win over FCS Florida A&M and went into their Week 3 bye with a 35-28 victory in Atlanta over Georgia State on Sept. 10. But the 52 total points allowed in those two wins sandwiched a Week 1 thriller in which North Carolina gave up even more than that — nearly in the fourth quarter alone — in a 63-61 barnburner down the road in Boone over 2022's Appalachian State "Cardiac Kids," a score that would lead one to think the Mountaineers had nearly pulled off the upset on the hardwood instead.
A 4-0 start would be quite the sign of good things to come for this group, however, as only six seasons in the last 50 years — 18 in program history — have seen North Carolina win its first four games, and each of the last four (1980, 1981, 1983, 1997) have led to streaks of at least six straight wins to open the respective season.
And if the Tar Heels want to reach that mark, they'll need to do something they've only done once (officially): beat the Fighting Irish. Notre Dame holds a 20-1 record all-time in the series, winning each of the last four meetings — 2014, 2017, 2020, and 2021 — while North Carolina came away victorious with a 12-7 victory in 1960 but was forced to vacate its 29-24 win in 2008.
Notre Dame at North Carolina
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
The Fighting Irish and Golden Bears were nearly identical in yardage totals — Notre Dame outgained California 297-296 — an outcome largely unexpected after Notre Dame tallied just 118 yards to Cal's 184 on the shoulders of four straight three-and-outs to open the game but just one the rest of the way (on its final drive of the game). Those four three-and-outs — and seven total punts — can be largely attributed to the Fighting Irish's 26.3 percent conversion rate (10-for-38) on third down, the eighth-worst mark in FBS and the third-worst among Power 5 peers. That rate, if extended over the course of a full season, would've finished third from the bottom in 2021 (ahead of only 3-9 New Mexico and 1-11 UConn) and dead last in 2019 (one spot behind 0-12 Akron).
Notre Dame failed to reach the end zone through the air until the final seconds of Week 2, and such struggles persisted until nearly the midpoint of the second quarter when newly cemented starting quarterback Drew Pyne found running back Chris Tyree over the middle for the Fighting Irish's first score of the game. That touchdown pass capped off a 10-play, 60-yard drive that lasted five minutes and 28 seconds, just 30 seconds shorter than the aggregate total of Notre Dame's first five drives combined.
In fact, it was the running backs who led the way both on the ground and in the passing game. Tyree finished with five catches for 41 yards and that touchdown, with backfield mate Audric Estime right behind with three catches for 43 yards. Estime actually hauled in Pyne's longest completion of the game, a 36-yard reception early in the fourth quarter that set up the Irish with a first-and-goal situation, leading to Pyne's second touchdown on the very next play where he found tight end Michael Mayer for the go-ahead score that would prove to be the decisive one in the 24-17 win.
If the Week 3 victory over California was a catalyst for Notre Dame's offense to move in the right direction, North Carolina's defense presents itself as a means for continuing in that direction. The Tar Heels enter Week 4 last in the ACC with 37.7 points allowed per game (119th nationally) and just 4.7 tackles for a loss per game, driven largely by their conference-worst 468.3 total yards and 275.3 passing yards allowed per game. Those numbers also place UNC in the bottom 10 and bottom 20 of the nation in the respective categories.
When North Carolina Has the Ball
For a team's defense that has struggled as much as Carolina's, the Tar Heels have had exactly the offense needed to overcome that start. North Carolina is one of just six FBS teams that have totaled at least 150 points entering Week 4, and one of just five that have done so in three games. The Tar Heels' 51.3 points per game sits well atop the ACC, with Wake Forest next in line (42.0).
Here's where UNC's offense sets itself apart: the Heels are the only team entering Week 4 ranked in the top 25 in both passing and rushing offense. Let that sink in: none of the current top five teams in the polls — Georgia, Alabama, Ohio State, Michigan, and Clemson — can say the same. Now, sure, many of those teams have had blowout wins that haven't required as prolific of an offense to win games, but it speaks to the potent — and balanced — offense that North Carolina brings to the table. Redshirt freshman quarterback Drake Maye leads the ACC in passing yards (310 pg) and touchdown passes (11), the latter tying him with Ohio State's C.J. Stroud and Tulsa's Davis Brin for the most in the country.
Maye hasn't zeroed in on just one receiver either, especially with All-ACC wide receiver Josh Downs missing the last two games because of injury. He could be cleared to return to action for this game, giving the offense yet another weapon. In Downs' absence, Maye has done a good job spreading the ball around as Downs, fellow wideout Kobe Paysour, and tight ends Kamari Morales and Bryson Nesbit each have caught two touchdown passes. Paysour leads the team in receptions (14) and yards (172), with Morales (8, 135) and Nesbit (9, 116) close behind. On the ground, true freshman Omarion Hampton is the leading rusher with 228 yards and five touchdowns on 38 carries while Maye (146 yds) is next.
The Tar Heels' potent offense figures to be a tough challenge for Notre Dame, but this also will be the toughest defense UNC has faced thus far. A good place for the Fighting Irish to start would be to force a turnover, something Al Golden's unit has yet to do. There are just three other FBS teams — Auburn (2-1), Fresno State (1-2), and Temple (1-2) — with zero takeaways to this point. The average defense forces a turnover roughly every 41 plays. Notre Dame's D has been on the field for 208 plays and is still searching for its first. One bright spot on this side of the ball last week was the play of the defensive line, which totaled six sacks. It was a collective effort up front with Jacob Lacey recording two sacks, Isaiah Foskey and Jayson Ademilola credited with 1.5 each, and Justin Ademilola adding his name to the stat sheet on the second-to-last play of the game. That marks a big improvement from the first two games when the Irish totaled four sacks in their losses to Ohio State and Marshall.
Yet another element of intrigue for this matchup: Notre Dame's offense is averaging 1.57 points per drive this season (60th out of 65 Power 5 teams), while North Carolina's defense is allowing 2.83 points/drive so far this season (64th out of 65 Power 5 teams). If North Carolina's offense presents itself as a nearly irresistible force, consider the matchup on the other side of the ball as a manifestation of the stoppable force going up against the movable object.
All in all, Notre Dame began to move in the right direction last week, the offense finding a bit more structure to do its job while the defense shrugged off a dismal showing against Marshall to slow down Cal's passing game. Continuing that progress will be crucial against an even more potent Tar Heels team that features dynamic playmakers both on the ground and through the air, but which has historically struggled to score against Notre Dame, averaging a little more than 13 points per game throughout the decades in this series. This UNC offense should be able to put more points on the board this time but the Irish defense will make enough stops to keep things close throughout while the ND offense enjoys its best showing of the season so far.
Prediction: Notre Dame 34, North Carolina 31
Podcast: Week 4 Preview, Predictions and Picks Against the Spread
Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the editor-in-chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
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