Head-to-Head 2020: North Carolina Tar Heels
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, November 27, 2020
Notre Dame Passing
This North Carolina team feels like it fits in better in the Big 12 than in the ACC — dynamic, high-power offense expected to make up for a lack-luster defensive performance. There’s no reason to expect that to change come Friday. Opponents average over 261 passing yards against the Tar Heels and Ian Book, who is currently on the cusp of 2,000 passing yards this season, has every reason to take advantage of that. The recent emergence of Ben Skowronek in addition to the usual big pass catchers at the tight end position gives Book an abundance of targets and should lead to a big day for the Irish offense.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Notre Dame Rushing
There’s a common theme in games in which this UNC defense has been victimized, and that theme is struggles against the run. In three games against Wake Forest, Virginia and Virginia Tech, the Tar Heels surrendered 142 points and eight rushing touchdowns. They’ve been victimized by running backs and dual-threat quarterbacks alike, both of which Notre Dame has. Their three-headed monster in the backfield is led by sophomore Kyren Williams, and graduate student Ian Book is as dangerous as any quarterback in escaping the pocket and scrambling. This one goes to the Irish.
EDGE: Notre Dame
Notre Dame Offensive Coaching
Tommy Rees is probably sitting on a few dozen plays in his playbook just collecting dust waiting to be run during a game. If this UNC offense gets going, which it has done often this year, Rees may have to pull some of these plays out from deeper in his playbook. This would bode well for the Tar Heels who have established themselves on the offensive side of the ball the past couple years as Rees is still just in his first year at the helm of the offense and just doesn’t have the same valuable experience as his opponent.
Notre Dame Offensive Special Teams
Although senior kicker Jonathan Doerer missed a kick against Boston College, he’s been very solid overall, and he continues his perfect stretch on PATs. Another impressive stat for Doerer this season? Whenever the game has been within one score, he hasn’t missed a field goal attempt. He’s been clutch for Notre Dame all season, even if he missed a couple of unimportant field goals, and that combined with Notre Dame’s dangerously speedy return game, grants the Irish the edge.
EDGE: Notre Dame
UNC’s Sam Howell is a lethal quarterback who can decimate a lot of defenses. Notre Dame has struggled recently with big plays, and they’ve had some issues in defending the deep pass, particularly on the outside with their cornerbacks. The Tar Heels boast a pair of big playmakers in Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome at wide receiver, who have combined for 13 touchdowns, and they’ll look to utilize their strength against Notre Dame’s biggest defensive weakness.
This is the matchup to watch in this game. Through eight games each, North Carolina and Notre Dame both have the exact same amount of rushing yards as a team (1,868). The difference is that the Tar Heels are averaging almost half a yard per carry more than the Irish (5.58 vs. 5.16). It’s a small difference, but UNC presents a unique challenge for ND in that it boasts two backs who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season and are each averaging over 100 yards per game on the ground this season. Notre Dame managed to hold Clemson’s Travis Etienne to 28 yards rushing in a game, but that took all its efforts. It will be a difficult task for Clark Lea to stifle the two-headed monster before him, but the intent has been made clear — and to date he has proven his ability — to make the offense one-dimensional by taking away the ground attack.
EDGE: Notre Dame
UNC Offensive Coaching
Check out Matt Fortuna’s feature in The Athletic to learn all you need to know about offensive coordinator Phil Longo. A guy who has worked his way up the ranks, he has developed a style that favors fast but controlled play at the hands of his trusted sophomore quarterback, Sam Howell. Clark Lea and this Notre Dame defense are really good, but the multidimensional threats of this UNC offense tips the scales in their favor.
UNC Offensive Special Teams
Graduate student kicker Grayson Atkins has gone 7-12 on field goal attempts this year. He’s 5-6 on tries 39 yards and in, but just 2-6 from 40 or more yards. This is also the first year he’s recorded any kicking stats as far as yardages, so it’s unclear how the pressure of a matchup with Notre Dame will affect him. On the return side, the Tar Heels aren’t spectacular. Senior wide receiver Dazz Newsome averages only about 10 yards per punt return, and senior running back Michael Carter gets 19.5 yards per kickoff return. Brian Polian’s Irish special teams haven’t been outstanding this season, but coverage has been solid enough to handle the middling Tar Heels and the defense should do enough to keep Atkins near the edge of his range.