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UNC Football vs. Notre Dame: Three Things to Watch

The Heels are back in action on primetime on Saturday in South Bend

Miami v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

When looking at the overall numbers in the matchup between the North Carolina Tar Heels and Notre Dame, there are some encouraging signs for UNC fans:

UNC - ND Team Stats

Team Stats North Carolina Notre Dame
Team Stats North Carolina Notre Dame
Points Per Game 36.9 31.0
Points Allowed Per Game 28.9 23.1
Total Yards 471.3 370.0
Yards Passing 272.1 262.3
Yards Rushing 199.1 107.7
Yards Allowed 378.6 371.4
Pass Yards Allowed 219.7 245.9
Rush Yards Allowed 158.9 125.6

When looking at the average points scored and allowed per game, each time is right at a +8 margin.

Average yards allowed by the two squads are nearly equal. The Carolina defense is 26 yards better in the passing game, while Notre Dame’s run defense holds about a 33-yard advantage.

For average yards gained, UNC is outpacing ND by nearly 100 yards with the bulk of that advantage in the running game.

Even though these figures provide some cautious optimism for Carolina fans, it does not tell the story of the no. 11 Fighting Irish and the barely above .500 Tar Heels.

As broken down yesterday, the close finishes from Notre Dame are a factor in why the team is 4-3 against the spread.

Carolina’s woes are heavily documented on Tar Heel Blog, and there is a lot to unpack to explain why UNC is 3-4 ATS.

But the Tar Heels do not need to cover on Saturday night.

They need a win.

And here are three things to watch if an upset is in the making in northern Indiana.

Third Downs

In those tight games this season, Notre Dame found a way late in games to stop opponents. For UNC to have a shot on Saturday, they must sustain drives.

The good news is Carolina is 10th in the nation with a 48.9 percent third down conversion percentage. However, Notre Dame’s defense is holding opponents to a 33.7 percent conversion rate- good for 23rd in the country.

On the flip side, UNC’s third down defense sits at 85th in the NCAA with a 40.7 percent conversion rate, while ND’s offense ranks 84th in the nation with a 38.1 percent conversion rate. If the Tar Heels can pull in both directions- convert third downs when they have the ball and hold Notre Dame when they are in that scenario- their chances at the upset greatly improve.

Protect Howell

A common theme throughout the 2021 season, but the Tar Heels must protect Sam Howell if UNC wants a shot at this game. Simply put, Carolina cannot win if he is continuously forced to scramble or is on his back staring at the dark, South Bend sky.

The Fighting Irish rank 31st in the country with 2.7 sacks per game. They make it hurt with 144 sack yards, a stat that moves them into the top ten of defenses. UNC still remains near the bottom of the NCAA with 3.9 sacks allowed per game.

The offensive line remains a liability, but perhaps the bye week was the silver bullet to addressing some of those challenges.

All Eyes on the Passing Game

It has not been the offensive year expected from the Tar Heels. For Howell, his 1,851 passing yards through seven games is behind his freshman (1,892) and sophomore (2,081) totals through the same number of games. Most telling, Howell had a total of seven interceptions thrown in each of his first two season. He has thrown six so far in 2021.

As mentioned before, the offensive line is an issue, and Howell does not have the targets of years past. In the passing game, it has been Josh Downs and everyone/nobody else. Against Miami, Downs had 11 receptions, while the rest of the team only had six combined receptions. The Carolina needs the passing game to win this season, and Saturday night is no exception.

Although Notre Dame allows more passing yards on defense than UNC, the team is tied for fifth in the NCAA with 11 interceptions on the season. These interceptions by the Fighting Irish contribute to a top 20 turnover margin of .86. If Howell can come out of the game without an interception, there will at least be a shot of the Tar Heels.