For the third year in a row, the North Carolina Tar Heels take on Notre Dame on the gridiron. The last time UNC played ND in three consecutive seasons was 1958 through 1960. After dropping the first two games by a combined 30 points, the 1960 game at Kenan Stadium ended in a 12-7 Carolina victory.
Is the third time the charm for these Tar Heels?
This game will be a test for the explosive Carolina offense. With an above-average defense lining up across from them, how will Drake Maye and the offense respond? As for the defense, can they make some progress against a lowly Notre Dame offense?
With these larger themes in mind, here are three factors for Saturday afternoon’s game versus the Fighting Irish.
UNC started out as dogs, but the lines have shifted to favor the home team. The major reason for this shift is yesterday’s report on running back Caleb Hood and receivers Josh Downs and Antoine Green. All three practiced this week, and officially their status will be updated Saturday. However, all reports indicate that Downs and Green will be in the lineup.
If one of the top receivers in the nation and a reliable senior wideout do hit the field Saturday, their impact will be measured far beyond stepping onto the field. These players provide leadership to the team, and the home crowd will provide a hearty welcome back.
Maye has been spreading the wealth in the passing game. Six players have over 100 receiving yards on the season, and a redshirt freshman receiver and two tight ends are the top three in receiving on the team.
If a downhill runner in Hood can return with these two receivers, the Carolina offense will have a full arsenal for this important game.
Both teams are underwater in turnover margin, with Notre Dame at -4 and Carolina at -1. But the telling part of this statistic is that the Fighting Irish have not caused a turnover all season. There were no turnovers in Notre Dame’s opener against Ohio State, they had three in their upset by Marshall, and they lost a fumble last week versus Cal.
The pick-six by Marshall was the most costly for Notre Dame this season, especially since an interception was thrown by the Irish on the subsequent drive. Even the fumble against Cal hurt because the Golden Bears scored 26 seconds later to take the early 7-0 lead.
The same day Notre Dame was -3 in turnovers against Marshall, UNC went -3 in turnovers versus Georgia State. All three Tar Heel turnovers were in the second half. Fortunately, a field goal was the only damage caused by these mistakes.
Looking into the crystal ball, the concern for Carolina will be Maye in this critical game against this legendary program. The redshirt freshman may feel the pressure to force plays, either into tight windows through the air or making things happen on his feet. Keeping Notre Dame turnover-less for the year will not only increase Carolina’s chances of victory but will boost the confidence of this young offense.
Pressure on the quarterback
With Drew Pyne thrust into the starting role after an unfortunate injury to ND’s starting quarterback, the Carolina defense needs to make some noise in Pyne’s second collegiate start. Simply put, the pass rush has been impotent this season.
In three games, UNC has registered six sacks and three hurries. Three sacks and two hurries came in the first game against FCS Florida A&M. So, not much action up front since Week 0. In fact, UNC did not register a single hurry against Georgia State.
Notre Dame has allowed seven sacks on the season, ranking 83rd in team sacks average. Three of those came against Ohio State, so the Irish have been allowing them throughout their first three games.
In other words, an O-line with some pass protection issues with a backup-turned-starter under center is an opportunity for the Carolina defense. There are plenty of issues on defense, but in this game, the defense needs to make something happen up front.