It was two years ago when Notre Dame was in the midst of a BCS season and North Carolina was right at the bottom of the ACC. Two years later the roles have changed as Notre Dame hits the road for only the second time in 2008 this coming Saturday, this time against a potential BCS team, as crazy as it sounds to say. Butch Davis has done a great job at UNC and credit him in turning the program around.
Notre Dame has shown growth offensively, specifically in the passing game where quarterback Jimmy Clausen has had career games in each of his last two contests. How will Clausen fare this weekend in Chapel Hill? Tough to say because he will be facing a defensive scheme that he is not used to seeing.
North Carolina will likely not be going after Clausen, which is a changeup compared to what Clausen has seen this year. Sure the Irish have only allowed five sacks so far in 2008, but Clausen has been blitzed fairly heavily as well. Instead of looking for immediate openings due to the forthcoming blitz, Clausen will have to not get overly anxious. It will also be up to the offensive line to not allow the defensive front of UNC to get to Jimmy.
Despite only getting to the quarterback six times this year North Carolina has forced 12 picks, something Notre Dame must avoid in order to win on Saturday. Leading the way in the defensive backfield for UNC has been Trimane Goddard who is responsible for four interceptions and 22 tackles. Mark Paschal has pulled in two picks himself while the other six interceptions have been brought in by six separate Tar Heels. Its important that, if Clausen does make multiple mistakes, his wideouts in Floyd, Tate, Grimes, and company not only make plays, but also play pass defensive and knock away potential interceptions when necessary.
Statistically, North Carolina has averaged 200 yards allowed through the air while just under 150 a game on the ground. This defense has talent, but as long as the Irish are patient and don't fall victim to the turnover game, the offense should be fine in continuing to put points on the scoreboard. Running the football will be key against this defense since they won't likely be sending linebackers or safeties too often. It's up to the offensive line and running backs to take advantage.
Notre Dame will catch a break defensively where North Carolina is stuck with their second string quarterback from the start of the season, Cameron Sexton. A week ago Sexton threw for only 117 yards, but much of that is due to the fact North Carolina led from early in the first half and was able to run the football.
Two of the biggest playmakers on the field this weekend have the same last name. Notre Dame of course brings Golden Tate, the playmaking wide reciever to the table while North Carolina counters with Brandon Tate. The latter Tate is one of two excellent wide outs for North Carolina (16 Rec, 376 Yds, 3 TDs) who is accompanied by Hakeen Nicks, who is just as daunting of task to try and cover (24 Rec, 412 Yds, 4 TDs). It can be argued that this pair is the best group of wideouts Notre Dame will see in 2008, so David Bruton and company - please come ready to play.
The running game of North Carolina is no great shakes, especially after seeing the powerful running scheme that Stanford brought to Notre Dame Stadium a week ago. Former Notre Dame verbal, turned Tar Heel commit on Signing Day '07 Greg Little leads the Tar Heels with 223 rush yards on the season. Shaun Draughn has only two-thirds the carries as Little, but averages a yard more per carry with 4.7 per. After seeing a strong running game a week ago I expect Notre Dame will be able slow down these two.
What scares me in a game like this is how important special teams will be in the outcome. Obviously, the Irish kick/punt coverage has been a strong point during the season. However, the times Notre Dame has been pressured in the punt game, they have either had balls deflected or have come very near to having them blocked. That won't fly this weekend as UNC is coming off a game where Bruce Carter blocked three punts himself en route to a blowout win over UConn and former Irish quarterback Zach Frazer.
Notre Dame let a team back into the game last weekend, due partly due to bad special teams play, when Brandon Walker had two chances to wrap things up and failed in both. Jay Wooten is by no means great, but gives the Tar Heels an advantage in special teams by converting 4/6 field goals this season with a long of 43.
Man Oh Man...At the start of the week I had extreme doubts in the Fighting Irish coming into this weekend. "Is Notre Dame back?" is a question many of us have heard the past week with the 4-1 record, but not really a "marquee win" as the pollsters love to see. Can it change this weekend? The rest of the Notre Dame fandom may think I'm nuts in saying this, but here it goes...
Nick Says(5-0): Notre Dame 28 #22 North Carolina 24
Mark Says (5-0): #22 North Carolina 27 Notre Dame 21
Mike Says (0-0): #22 North Carolina 28 Notre Dame 24