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UNC vs. Notre Dame: Three Things to Watch

Can the Tar Heels get the big upset over the second-best team in the country?

NCAA Football: Wake Forest at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

There has not been a more consequential matchup for the North Carolina Tar Heels since Frank Beamer’s final home game as the head coach of Virginia Tech.

Back in 2015, the Tar Heels controlled their destiny on that November Saturday in Blacksburg. The Hokies forced overtime when UNC blew a 14-point lead, but extra time heroics by Marquise Williams and Quinshad Davis propelled Carolina to their first ACC Championship Game appearance.

Here in 2020, the Tar Heels still have a chance to play for the conference title in Charlotte, although they will need a bit of help.

From UNC’s perspective, it will take wins Friday versus Notre Dame and against Miami on the road in two weeks to keep them in the ACC Championship conversation.

The Tar Heels of 2015 faced adversity when a major goal was within reach, and that team was able to capture the victory. Can this 2020 group do the same and rise to the challenge?

With the second-ranked Fighting Irish traveling to Chapel Hill this week, here are three things to watch if Carolina seeks to be a giant killer and keep their title hopes alive.

Sustaining Drives

Third down situations will be one of the biggest challenges the UNC offense will face on Friday.

The Notre Dame defense ranks fourth in the nation (second if you only count teams that have played a full schedule) in third down conversion defense.

The Fighting Irish have allowed just 27 third down conversions on 104 attempts in eight games this season.

Against Clemson, Notre Dame held the Tigers to a 26 percent conversion rate on third down. This percentage is ND’s season average.

Carolina has not done a bad job overall with third downs on the season. Their eight-game total conversion rate is 48.9 percent. This percentage places UNC 23rd in the nation.

In the last game versus Wake Forest, the Tar Heels were 7-14 on third down conversions during the game.

However, it was a tale of two halves. In the first half, UNC went just 2-7 on third down. The second half improved to 5-7, including a perfect 4-4 in the fourth quarter.

This same pattern occurred against Virginia. UNC was 2-6 on third down in the first, while they converted all four third down situations in the second half.

Needless to say, Carolina cannot afford another slow start against the undefeated Fighting Irish. If the Tar Heels get behind the chains in the first, Sam Howell must find a way to weather any type of first half offensive woes and keep the offense on the field.

The Pressure is on the Run Defense

Here is an interesting factoid: both UNC and ND are averaging the same average rushing yards per game so far in 2020. Each offense has averaged 233.5 yards on the ground this season.

However, when comparing run defenses between the two programs, there is a different story.

Notre Dame boasts a top five run defense, allowing just 85.1 yards per game this season. Although they held Travis Etienne to just 28 yards on the ground in their victory over Clemson, the Irish have not faced a duo like Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. They will need some help from their offensive line, but this underrated pair has the capacity to test ND.

Carolina ranks 54th in the nation in run defense, giving up 151.9 yards per game in 2020. Keeping Notre Dame at or below the UNC defensive average will be a stiff challenge.

The most dangerous piece of the Irish offense for the Tar Heels is senior quarterback Ian Book. He is the type of dual-threat QB that has given Carolina fits this season.

Through the air this season, Book has thrown for 1,818 yards, 11 touchdowns, and only one interception. On the ground, he has gained 364 yards on 75 attempts and has punched in six touchdowns.

Add in talented sophomore running back Kyren Williams, who has gained 777 yards this year on nearly six yards a carry, and you have a recipe that worries Tar Heel fans.

Will the extra week of prep pay dividends?

The tin-foil hats will say that John Swofford handpicked this bye week for the Tar Heels.

I do not think that is true, but as a Tar Heels fan, I will certainly take it.

And Carolina needed it for a true shot at this undefeated Notre Dame team.

Besides the fact that there is more opponent prep, UNC will have a chance to get players healthy and younger ones more practice time.

Everyone knows the UNC offense can keep up with any team in the country. But Notre Dame’s stout defense will get some stops.

Notre Dame brings in a top 25 team in total offense with a style of offense similar to the opponents in UNC’s two losses this season. This question remains: will the UNC defense gets some stops?

Defensive depth will play a role in this game, and the younger guys will have to step up.

From the opening kickoff on Friday, the Tar Heels must be ready to play. If the players stick to their jobs and execute, you never know what can happen on a college football afternoon.