Way-Too-Early Preview: Irish hope to maintain historical success over UNC in late-October clash
Observer Sports Staff | Friday, April 23, 2021
A little Halloweekend primetime action for the Fighting Irish in 2021? That’s a distinct possibility when potential top 2022 NFL draft selection Sam Howell and his North Carolina Tar Heels visit Notre Dame on October 30th. With USC visiting the weekend before, it’s not a guaranteed evening kickoff for the Irish, but it’s one of the highest-profile games of a difficult schedule and possibly their final major test of the regular season – let’s take a look at the Way-Too-Early Preview.
Opponent: North Carolina Tar Heels
Date: Saturday, October 30
Location: Notre Dame Stadium
History of the matchup
The UNC-Notre Dame matchup has been quite kind to the Irish, who have dominated the Tar Heels to the tune of a 19-1 overall record. UNC does have one other win, but it was a vacated victory in 2008. Excluding that game, Notre Dame has won nine straight since their lone loss in 1960 to the Tar Heels. They played most recently in 2020, in which Notre Dame shut down a high-powered UNC offense in their 31-17 victory on Black Friday. Notre Dame has held UNC to 17 or less points in all but three games in the 20-game series, but that will certainly be tested against a UNC offense expected to be dangerous once more under the guidance of Howell.
UNC has hopes of entering this 2021 clash with the Irish as a top-5 team, which they were for a brief moment last season before an upset loss to Florida State. The Tar Heels ultimately finished 8-4, with two upset losses to Florida State and Virginia, the loss to Notre Dame, and a bowl game loss to Texas A&M, although their lethal offense was severely depleted due to opt outs in that last game. They had three ranked wins, including a 62-26 demolition of Miami, ranked No. 9 at the time.
Howell was the offensive leader, completing 68% of his passes for 30 touchdowns to just seven interceptions. His top targets were wide receivers Dyami Brown (55 catches, 8 touchdowns) and Dazz Newsome (54 catches, 6 TDs). And the Tar Heels weren’t weaker on the ground, as running back Michael Carter ran for 1,245 yards and nine touchdowns, while running back Javonte Williams notched 1,140 yards and 19 scores. Both backs notched 25 receptions as well.
UNC was a mess at times defensively, although they did have a top NFL prospect in converted linebacker Chazz Surratt. Tomon Fox was another disruptive linebacker, with 7.5 sacks to his name, while linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel was the only Tar Heel with two interceptions. The offense ranked 9th in points per game, but the defense gave up 29.4 points per game, ranking 65th in the nation.
Clemson is still the team to beat in the ACC. But, particularly after dominating Miami at the tail-end of the 2020 season, UNC can stake a claim as the Tigers’ top challenger in the conference. This makes UNC one of the toughest opponents on the schedule for Notre Dame, and it’s likely the Tar Heels are 7-0 entering this high profile clash at Notre Dame Stadium, where they’re 0-12 all time. The Tar Heels will have to survive Virginia Tech on the road and Miami to get to South Bend unblemished, but if they do so, they’ll be coming off a bye week and ready to topple the Irish.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame will be at the tail end of the toughest part of their schedule, ending a five-game stretch against Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Virginia Tech, USC, and UNC. If Notre Dame gets through that gauntlet, they have a high chance of returning to the CFP in 2021, but it’ll take some magic, particularly against this Tar Heels squad. UNC is losing a lot of talent, but with Howell under center, they’ll still be dangerous. His top targets are gone, but sophomore wide receiver Khafre Brown is full of barely-tapped potential, graduate student tight end Garrett Walston notched 19 catches last season, and wide receivers Emery Simmons and Beau Corrales are other players who notched over a dozen receptions last season. There is at least experience within the receiving corps, but the running game may be a different struggle. British Brooks is the top returning back with 99 rushing yards to his name last season, so determining who may be the feature back is hardly more than speculation. Expect more of an aerial attack from UNC this season, but that should suit Howell just fine.
Defensively, North Carolina loses Surratt but returns Fox and Gemmel to a strong linebacker room. Senior Raymond Vohasek anchors the defensive line after notching 8.5 tackles for loss last season, while junior Kyler McMichael and senior Trey Morrison lead the secondary into action. The amount of returning defensive talent should help North Carolina, particularly early in the season as their offense adjusts to the new set of playmakers.
(Way Too Early) Predictions
History sides with the Irish, but certainly this is an incredibly dangerous game for Notre Dame. It would be in standard circumstances, but as it ends the aforementioned brutal stretch, and comes just seven days after what is sure to be a physical battle against USC (who could also be a top-10 opponent), Notre Dame is in for a slugfest. If I’m being realistic and honest with myself – which is always hard to do – I don’t think Notre Dame enters this game undefeated, which as an independent means they’ll be out of the CFP race and playing for (maybe) a New Year’s Six game. Worst case scenario, they’re trying to spoil UNC’s unbeaten run as their primary challenger, and maybe continue their home winning streak, should they avoid any earlier losses in South Bend. Currently, without really knowing who is the starting quarterback for the Irish, I anticipate some early season adjustments, but I think they’ll be playing like a top 10 team by late October, and I’m not going against them in South Bend, against a team that they are 19-1 against all-time. Give me Jack Coan (or Drew Pyne, or Tyler Buchner) leading a game-winning drive in the final minute.
Notre Dame 28, UNC 27
This one has been circled on my calendar for awhile, and I expect it will live up to the hype. If last year’s game was any indication, this game should be highly competitive as the Tar Heels will likely improve this season and be able to better compete with the Irish. In last year’s game, the Irish defense was able to make a statement and shutdown Sam Howell and the high-powered Tar Heel offense for most of the second half, but I expect this year’s game to be much different. As Howell will be more experienced this year, I don’t see him being shut out like he was last year. This one will be close all the way through, but the Tar Heels will have a late drive and kick a game winning 45-yard field goal to give the Irish their first home loss of the season and end Notre Dame’s home winning streak.
Notre Dame 31, UNC 34