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UNC vs. Notre Dame: Game Preview

Carolina looks to go undefeated in their non-conference schedule.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Georgia St. Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Well, we hope you enjoyed your free weekend. For the first time in, literally, a month, the Tar Heels will take the field in Chapel Hill tomorrow. Across the field from them is none other than the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame. The Tar Heels are looking to get only their third win all time against Notre Dame, and their first since 2008. Thanks to a weird quirk in the schedule, this will actually be the third year in a row the two have met despite the way the ACC schedule is set up.

The Irish are scuffling a bit to start the season. The 1-2 record has one loss no one was surprised by in Ohio State, and one that stunned everybody in Marshall. Last week, they finally got Marcus Freeman’s first win by holding on against Cal, 24-17. Cal was unable to convert their Hail Mary pass at the end of the game that would have given them a chance to either tie or take the lead, and that probably was something about doing a Hail Mary at Notre Dame against Notre Dame...

The bumps last weekend were expected to some extent, though, as the Irish were breaking in a new quarterback, Drew Pyne, after the injury to Tyler Buchner in that Marshall loss forced Pyne into action. The win at least staved off a full-on panic in South Bend for one week, but it’s fair to say the fans there aren’t exactly thinking tomorrow will be a walk in the park.

You’ve heard of the unstoppable force meets the immovable object, but what happens when you have the weak force going up against the very movable object?

At this point, Carolina’s defensive issues are well-known — they had trouble containing FCS Florida A&M, allowed 40 points against App State in one quarter, and then a 25-0 run against Georgia State. The funny thing is that Georgia State game may have seen a fork in the road moment, as after the last score, the Panthers were shut out on four straight drives. Could the off week have allowed the coaches to spot what was working and lean on it?

Notre Dame has a similar quandary on offense. The offense has scored 60 points all season, fewer than Carolina scored against App State alone. Pyne passed for only 150 yards total last weekend, but did have two passing scores and didn’t pass it back to Cal, which is progress. The Irish also pounded the ball to the tune of 147 yards, which is bad news considering the 293 yards on the ground is what killed the Tar Heels last season. Notre Dame was able to put up 44 points despite only passing for 250 yards.

So will Carolina learn from last season and force Pyne to pass it? The good news is that the biggest culprit for that rushing attack, Kyren Williams, has graduated, and the Irish still average a paltry 3.3 yards on the ground — by far the worst of the three teams the Tar Heels have played. If a rested crew with an extra week to prepare can’t put up a better effort than last season, the ACC can prepare to feast.

The Notre Dame defense allowed 34 points last season against Carolina last season, with Sam Howell leading the rushing attack for 101 yards on his own and 223 yards total. Josh Downs chewed up the Notre Dame secondary for 141 yards, and Antoine Green wasn’t far behind with nearly 100 yards.

This year, the offense is arguably better.

Drake Maye has shown himself to be just as capable a runner, as he is second on the team in rushing. Unlike last season when it felt like it was a necessity, the Tar Heels have four running backs to cycle around. On top of that, six receivers have over 100 yards so far, and that number isn’t seven only because Downs has missed the last two games. The problem for Carolina has been turnovers, as Drake Maye handed out his first pick against Georgia State, and three lost fumbles so far. The turnovers have come at some of the most inopportune times for keeping opponents in the game, and they’ll have to secure the ball better against this Notre Dame squad.

The Notre Dame defense is giving up over 160 yards on the ground, but only 184 in the air. They have managed to get seven sacks, and that push has been a point of concern for the Tar Heels. Maye has gone down six times so far, and the turnovers have been a result of Maye being hurried up slightly.

With so much talent running around, it’s impossible for Notre Dame to cover it all. Expect the Tar Heels to try and continue the same run/short pass combo they’ve used so far to try and get some momentum going.

The line on this game keeps swinging around, showing that people are having trouble getting a handle on just how close the two squads are. We’ve seen what happens when the Tar Heels offense starts to scuffle and the defense starts going downhill. It seems clear the game plan for Notre Dame will be to just gash the Tar Heels up the middle and try to take as much pressure off Pyne as possible, but the Tar Heels have had two weeks to not only get ready for this, but review what started to work against Georgia State.

Notre Dame’s defense really isn’t any better than last season, and with so many more weapons to have to account for, the Irish have to hope they can rattle the young Maye, get some quick scores, and then drain the clock as much as possible. If this turns into a track meet, the Tar Heels will win.

Personally, I think this is Carolina’s best chance against the Irish of the three years.

Prediction: UNC 45, Notre Dame 42