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UNC sets goals for weekend around Irish defensive line

| Friday, October 29, 2021

This weekend, Notre Dame football will head into their second home game and third night game in a row as they take on UNC.

On Monday and Tuesday, the Tar Heels discussed the upcoming matchup against Notre Dame and what they needed to do to prepare. UNC head coach Mack Brown discussed what went wrong for the Tar Heels when the two teams faced off last year.

“They were the only team that absolutely beat us down and physically beat us down and made a big run in the fourth quarter, but our defense hung in there,” Mack Brown said. “Offensively against Notre Dame, we did not play well in the second half at all. And that was with one of the best offenses I’ve ever been around and they absolutely physically just beat us.”

Turning to this year, the Tar Heels are 3-1 at home but 0-2 on the road. As they head into Notre Dame Stadium, UNC has five games left, during four of which they face ranked teams. Additionally, three of those games will be on the road. Brown broke down what he needs to see from his players in order to find success in some of those games and shoot for a bowl game.

“We’ve got a fun challenging schedule ahead,” Brown said with a laugh, “but it’ll really make our program show continued growth to play well, during the stretch because it’s a tough one. And we’re continuing to learn how to handle adversity on the road and that’s not gonna slow down.”

As the team makes that adjustment for the remainder of the 2021 season, Brown took a look at the offense. The Tar Heels returned quarterback, junior Sam Howell, most of the offensive line and lead running back, graduate student Ty Chandler. With another year of experience under their belt, Brown knows what to expect from them individually and outlined where each of them can better rely on the rest of the squad.

“You start looking offensively, we just need to be more consistent, and we got to find ways to continue to run the ball,” Brown said. “We’ve gotten the ball to Josh Downs a lot. We’ve gotten the ball to our backs some, we’ve gotten the ball to our tight ends a lot. We’ve got to get the ball to our outside receivers more. We had a big play to [senior wide receiver] Antoine Green last week, but we’ve got to include them more in what we’re doing. Defensively, I think the biggest things we got to get them off the field on third and fourth downs and we’ve got to do a better job against the big plays.”

Focusing on Notre Dame especially, Brown was quick to celebrate the success the Irish have had, even in what seemed like it would be a rebuilding year. Specifically, he acknowledged head coach Brian Kelly and his ability to shape the team into the success they find each year.

“Congrats to Brian Kelly on beating Knute Rockne and his record for being the all-time winningest coach in Notre Dame history — that’s really special,” Brown said. “Brian does it right. He’s a tremendous coach. He is not a guy that’s negative in recruiting, they go by the rules. They’ve got really bright kids, and they’re very well-coached. And they’re kind of the standard that we’d like to be.”

The Irish have won 37 straight against unranked opponents and they’re 27-1 in their home stadium over the last 28 games so the Tar Heels are focusing mostly on what they can change within the team.

Sophomore defensive back Tony Grimes broke down how he and the rest of the defense plan to handle the Irish, focusing on their main goal and their mindset.

“The main focus is getting a three and out as many times as we can,” Grimes said. “That’s the main focus, three and out. Every chance we get to take them three and out is a better chance for the offense to score and there’s a better chance that the game’s a win.”

On the offensive side of things, quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator Phil Longo has one rule for this weekend: no mistakes.

“I think as each game has gone by, we’ve gotten better and that’s all we can ask of our guys,” he said. “We got to continue to get better not make repetitive mistakes. And against a team like Notre Dame, you can’t make mistakes. So, we’ve got to eliminate the pre-snap penalties, we have to have great ball security, we have to eliminate any [missing assignments] or technique issues — that stuff has to be clean. When you play a team of this caliber, you’ve got to play really, really clean football.”

Longo knows Howell is a double threat. He has maintained a pattern of 200 passing yards or more in all but the Miami game so far this season. On top of that, he hovers around the second-most rushing yards in any given game. Occasionally, he takes the top spot over Chandler or falls behind secondary running back D.J. Jones but mostly takes second. This week, though, Longo said he is worried about how Notre Dame’s defensive line will affect that production, specifically junior defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey.

“You always identify the top sack artist on every team,” Longo said. “You know, you have to decide: Is that somebody that we feel like we can handle in just base personnel, you know without any help? Or is that somebody that we need to double team or get help on or get a tight end over there and get a running back over there? Is he a scheme changer? [Foskey] is. There’s no question. And we’ve got to know where he is all the time. We’ve got to get help in pass protection with him.”

But the same goes for other players in the defensive line, Longo added.

“This is a very, very good defensive line, a very stout front seven,” he said. “… And I think physically they do probably as good a job as anybody we played this year at block destruction. They get their hands in on you, identify what’s going on with the direction of the football, and they do a good job of getting off you and tracking the ball. I think the key to their defense is that front seven and we’ve been thoroughly impressed with Notre Dame’s defensive line and their front seven.”

With their goals established, the Tar Heels roll into South Bend this weekend to take on the Irish at 7:30 p.m. Catch the game on NBC.

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About Mannion McGinley

Mannion McGinley is a class of 2023 American Studies and Sociology major with a Journalism minor. She is a member of the Glynn Family Honors program and is Sports Department Editor at The Observer.

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