Head to head: Notre Dame vs. North Carolina
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, October 6, 2017
Tar Heels Passing
For all the problems North Carolina faces, its passing offense isn’t a main concern. Tar Heel head coach Larry Fedora has rolled with redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt as his starting quarterback and the results have been average. Surratt has only thrown two interceptions this season, despite his inexperience, and his passing totals are passable.
Surratt’s completion percentage is hovering around 63 percent, but the freshman has only thrown for more than 170 yards in two games — one of which came against Old Dominion.
The injury bug has hit North Carolina hard, however, and the passing offense has not been spared. Senior wide receiver Austin Proehl broke his clavicle last weekend, sitting him out for the year. Proehl was North Carolina’s leading receiver through five games and to make matters worse, freshman wide receiver Rontavious Groves and sophomore tight end Carl Tucker are also out for the year with injuries suffered versus Duke.
Notre Dame, meanwhile is coming off of a mediocre performance against Miami (OH), in which the Irish let up 252 yards and two touchdowns through the air. Senior cornerback Nick Watkins, especially, looked out of sorts and the RedHawks picked on him. The rest of the Irish secondary looked solid and the Irish are definitely healthier than the Tar Heels.
Edge: Notre Dame
Tar Heels Rushing
When the Tar Heels have found success, it has often come from the running game. North Carolina averages 142 yards per game on the ground, but it also has 12 rushing touchdowns and a solid four yards per carry. However, the Tar Heels haven’t figured out who their most effective back is. In North Carolina’s most recent game against Georgia Tech, the Tar Heels split 26 carries between four players, with no running back getting more than 41 yards.
Notre Dame’s front seven didn’t crack yet again versus Miami (OH). The Irish have only allowed one 100-yard rusher this season and let up an average of 144 yards per game on the ground. Since the start of the season, defensive coordinator Mike Elko has elected to use a 8-10 man rotation on the line which keeps the Irish front fresh. Junior defensive tackle Jerry Tillery is coming off of a strong game versus the RedHawks in which he forced a key fumble and earned the game ball from Brian Kelly.
Edge: Notre Dame
Tar Heels Offensive Coaching
Once known as an up-and-coming offensive guru set to be a name floated around for head coaching vacancies at big-name programs, Larry Fedora has struggled mightily this year. With star quarterback Mitch Trubisky leaving for the NFL, Fedora lost a lot of production and was forced to start a true freshman this season. And 13 season-ending injuries to offensive players alone certainly doesn’t help. Whether or not Fedora can right the ship offensively in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, will play a large role in determining his coaching future.
While Fedora’s stock has fallen in 2017, Mike Elko’s has risen considerably. The Irish have yet to allow more than 20 points in any game this year, putting Notre Dame’s defense back on the map after Brian VanGorder’s departure. Coming from Wake Forest, Elko is familiar with the Tar Heels’ system. Saturday’s game between Notre Dame and North Carolina would be a premier matchup of clashing systems, if not for the slew of injuries bogging down North Carolina.
Tar Heels Special Teams
North Carolina junior kicker Freeman Jones is just 3-of-6 on the year in field-goals attempts, including an 0-for-2 outing against Georgia Tech last Saturday. Though a 50 percent clip won’t turn heads, Freeman is perfect from 39 yards and in.
Notre Dame’s return game has continued to be solid, if not spectacular. Junior punt returner Chris Finke may average less than one yard per return, but he has not fumbled yet this year — something that could not be said about the Irish returners last season.
Edge: Notre Dame
The biggest storyline this week out of Notre Dame’s camp is who will start at quarterback, with junior starter Brandon Wimbush suffering an injury to his right foot versus the RedHawks. Wimbush was in a walking boot Tuesday and Irish head coach Brian Kelly said he will be a gameday decision, with an X-ray and MRI coming back negative.
If Wimbush is unable to go, Kelly will turn to sophomore Ian Book who is 3-for-8 on the year in the limited time he has seen the field. Book is also a dual-threat player and has 40 rushing yards on five carries this year.
No matter who starts, Kelly has made it clear that the onus is also on the receivers to help Wimbush out and make some difficult catches. If Book does take the helm, expect short passes and a heavy dose of the run game to ease him into the flow of the game.
North Carolina’s defense, however, may not be in a position to take advantage of the Irish quarterback situation. The Tar Heels rank 106th nationally in yards per passing attempt, 105th in scoring defense and 107th in yards per play.
With either Book or an injured Wimbush starting at quarterback, the Irish will look to get their ground game going. Notre Dame is averaging 7.1 yards per carry and just over 300 yards per game. The Irish backfield suffered some bumps and bruises last week with junior Josh Adams coming out of the game with an ankle injury and sophomore Tony Jones Jr. taking a helmet-to-helmet hit. Kelly indicated that all three running backs would be good to go on Saturday, however.
Meanwhile, North Carolina’s front has looked porous through five games. The Tar Heels rank 109th in yards per carry, giving up five yards per attempt. An experienced Notre Dame offensive line should be able to open up holes for the Irish backs.
Edge: Notre Dame
Irish Offensive Coaching
In four of its five games, Notre Dame’s offense has been able to put teams away sooner or later. The Irish have had consistent success running the ball, and a 100 percent red zone conversion rate is a key part to big point totals.
The one area of concern remains Wimbush and his development in the passing game. Versus Miami, Wimbush was only 7-for-18 for 119 yards, despite being given plenty of time to throw the ball. A weaker North Carolina defense would give Wimbush another game to grow, but if he sits out due to his injury, the questions will continue.
Gene Chizik was the North Carolina coordinator going into the offseason, but he stepped down in the middle of February. Fedora replaced Chizik with North Texas defensive coordinator Mike Ekeler. The Tar Heels have not been a defensive powerhouse in recent history and their stats this year point to that fact. The injuries the unit has suffered only make matters worse.
Edge: Notre Dame
Notre Dame Special Teams
After a stretch of three solid weeks for junior kicker Justin Yoon, he faltered against Miami, missing a field-goal attempt from 46 yards out. On the season, Yoon is 6-for-9 on his field goal tries, but has made all of extra-point attempts.
More worrying though is Notre Dame’s kickoff unit. Neither Yoon nor freshman Jonathan Doerer seem to be able to consistently force touchbacks and Doerer has kicked a few balls out of bounds. A fake punt versus Miami went for a big gain, adding an extra wrinkle opposing teams will have to think about.