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UNC vs Notre Dame: Three things to watch

Three keys to a UNC victory when Notre Dame comes to Chapel Hill

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

Stumbling into Columbus Day weekend, the Tar Heels host Notre Dame on Saturday. The Fighting Irish bring a 4-1 record and a #21 ranking into Chapel Hill. North Carolina boasts a 1-3 record, and 14 players with season ending injuries. Predictably, this weekend’s contest does not provide much hope for even the most optimistic of fans, like yours truly.

Yet....I’m a sucker for an underdog. So, let’s look at three factors that can bring a victory to Kenan Memorial Stadium.

UNC’s Rushing D vs ND’s rushing O

In previous year, this would bring a sigh of frustration and an eye-roll from Tar Heel fans. However, with the exception of Heisman winner Lamar Jackson, and a couple of explosive running plays by Georgia Tech, the run defense of UNC has not been abysmal. Without the 65-yard run by TaQuon Marshall and the 63 yard run by KirVonte Benson, the Heels held the Yellow Jackets to just 4.1 yards per carry.

Of course you can’t just exclude those two runs from the box score, but it is encouraging. If UNC can avoid explosive plays on Saturday, their run defense has been more than adequate against Power 5 competition this year. Why is that important this week?

Notre Dame averages 301 yards on 41 carries per game. While it’s not the triple option of Georgia Tech, it is clearly a potent offense that looks to assert it’s dominance in the trenches and on the ground. Unlike Georgia Tech, who used eight different running/full/quarterbacks, Notre Dame does most of it’s damage with running back Josh Adams (658 yards) and quarterback Brandon Wimbush (402 yards). Notre Dame has scored 20 touchdowns on the ground, and only 6 through the air

If UNC can contain the ground attack, they may be able to keep it just close enough for the offense to find some points.

Injuries

For once, we aren’t going to harp on UNC’s catastrophic amount of injuries. Instead, keep on eye on the aforementioned Brandon Wimbush of Notre Dame. Earlier this week he was listed as day-to-day and wearing a walking boot. The dual-threat quarterback has proven to be a problem for opposing defenses, and losing him would be a significant development for the Irish.

It would also benefit the Heels who were overwhelmed by Jackson and Marshall in the past month. Dual-threat QBs have historically been a massive thorn in the side of the Tar Heel defense. Sophomore Ian Brook is the back-up quarterback and is 3-8 for 51 yards in his career. He has gained 40 yards on five carries. With a defense that has slowly improved through the season, that could be a favorable matchup.

Chazzle Dazzle (I’ll see myself out, thankyouverymuch)

I refuse to hop on the “blame the quarterback” bandwagon. In his first five games, despite losing over half his offensive support in the first four games, Chazz Surratt’s only truly grotesque performance was last week. Now, with an extra week of practice and a (relatively) stable offensive roster, his development will garner extra attention with each passing week.

Notre Dame’s pass defense is a mixed bag. They have generated five interceptions, but have allowed over 1200 yards passing and a 118.55 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks. They also have not faced a dual-threat quarterback like Chazz this season, unless you count their own Brandon Wimbush in practice.

To put his season in perspective, he is completing 63.3% of his passes for 988 yards and five touchdowns. He has added four rushing touchdowns on a misleading 147 yards as that total includes yards lost on sacks. Those numbers are essentially through four games when you consider he missed the second half against Louisville and effectively only played half the game against California.

With Notre Dame’s defensive line (11 sacks, 30 TFL) capable of disrupting the inconsistent UNC offensive line, Surratt will have ample opportunity to display his full range of dual-threat raw talent. If he can avoid the panic attacks that led to interceptions against Duke and at Bobby Dodd stadium, the Heels will have a chance to pull the upset.

And remember, the last time the Heels played at home, Chazz made this happen