There are very few games that have a start time announced before the season begins, mostly because ESPN and Fox control, well, every game. They want to structure their schedule to provide the biggest bang for the buck and put the most important matchups in a place where the most people can watch. NBC, however, is a little different in that they get to only control about seven or eight games a year with their Notre Dame contract. Thus, they go ahead and look at the games they have and decide which ones they are going to show in the afternoon and which ones they’ll show in prime time.
You know where this is going: thanks to preseason projections, NBC assumed that this was going to be a huge matchup, possibly the highest ranked opponent to come to Notre Dame this season with a future NFL quarterback at the helm, and a pretty big fan base in UNC. Several fans already bought tickets and will be headed to Indiana to catch the action, and in the end...well, it’s not quite as important as we all thought.
The Tar Heels are set to play the role of spoiler if Notre Dame wants to have any outside shot at returning to the CFP, and are looking to have a statement win to try and salvage a season full of disappointment. The Irish, on the other hand, hope to continue the march to a NY6 game at minimum. Here’s what to look for tonight:
When UNC has the ball:
The off week brought some reckoning to the offense, and some hard conversations led to some folks headed to the transfer portal. Presumably, that means players who hadn’t been performing up to this point were told that they aren’t going to be part of the offense the rest of the year. The translation here reads as an even stronger focus on Josh Downs, Ty Chandler, and maybe a few of the freshmen getting some run in the other spots. Downs, especially, should see more of a focus thanks to the news that safety Kyle Hamilton will be out this weekend. It’s a big loss in the for Notre Dame, as the All-American had three picks, four breakups, and two solo tackles for loss. The Irish have eleven picks total on the season, so needless to say that’s a huge hole that they now have to scheme around. It means Downs won’t have a potential top-five NFL pick providing double coverage as he tries to get free. The Notre Dame defense overall has done the job, though it is getable. They’ve surrendered an average of 124 yards net on the ground and 246 in the air. No one has been able to pass for 300 yards against them this season, as USC came the closest this past weekend with 299. The offensive line should also be ready for the rush as the Irish have managed to tally nineteen sacks so far, including an insane eight by Isaiah Foskey. If the coaching staff hasn’t done anything to shore up that line in the off week, Foskey could easily hit double digits by the end of the game, and he’s also looking to have his name called the first night of the 2022 NFL draft. All told, Sam is going to need to get rid of the ball quick or it’s going to be a rough night as this will easily be the best defense they’ve faced so far this season.
When Notre Dame has the ball
Besides the stumble against Cincinnati, Notre Dame has put points on the board including hanging 41 against Wisconsin, and 31 points per game on average. The funny thing is that when you look at the averages, it almost defies expectations. They are barely averaging 100 yards on the ground, and 262 yards in the air, and the high of 366 for the team came in that marathon against Notre Dame. Jack Coan is the main signal caller for Notre Dame this season, but he’s only averaging 199 per game, and the leading rusher, Kyren Williams only averages 72.6 yards. Defenses have managed to record 26 sacks on the year, get seven fumbles from the Irish, and snipe seven picks from the passing attack. The offense can be gotten, the problem is that the Tar Heels have yet to play a complete game where the offense has helped out the defense, and vice versa. Teams have managed to take advantage of a bad quarter or two, and with a team as relentless and grinding as Notre Dame, don’t expect anything different. A large part of that may be the consistency of their passing attack. They may not put up gaudy numbers, but four receivers are all over 300 yards for the season in catches, and five have a catch that’s over 40 yards. That’s going to stretch a thin secondary for the Tar Heels, so the best chance may be to just attack with relentless pressure up front and take your chances that you’ll hurry the decision makers into some poor throws, because if they have time, they’ll be accurate and celebrating in the end zone.
I picked Notre Dame to win this game, mostly because as scattershot as Carolina has shown to be, it’s tough to see how they can rise to the level of beating a strong Notre Dame team in South Bend. The Tar Heels have just looked awful in their only two road games thus far, and the ghosts of the Irish don’t bode any better for them. That said, there’s a question of just how rough Carolina’s defense has been when you look at the point totals that all of Carolina’s opponents have put up after playing the Tar Heels. Virginia, for instance, stumbled against Wake and then hasn’t fallen short of 30 since. Miami just hung 31 on a tough NC State defense with the same group that just fell short of coming back against Carolina, the Hokies put up 29 against this same Notre Dame team...in short, as more games are play we’re getting context. Carolina has also had two weeks to prepare, and judging by how active the Transfer Portal was, some hard conversations happened. It all sets up as a frustrating game either way, either another loss or the team showing you what could have been had they managed to get their act together earlier. In the end, though, Notre Dame is just too balanced on both sides for Carolina to be able to handle it.
Prediction: Notre Dame 35, UNC 21