With all due respect to the Clemson squad Notre Dame faced back on Nov. 7, the best offense the Fighting Irish will face this regular season is the one in Chapel Hill. When the second-ranked Notre Dame team squares off against the 19th-ranked North Carolina team, the marquee matchup will be the high-powered Tar Heel offense against the Irish defense, which has been one of the nation’s best units all season.
For Notre Dame, victory requires its defense playing at a high level, which means performing well in these four key areas:
SLOW DOWN THE RUN GAME
I already broke down how important it is for Notre Dame to slow down the North Carolina ground attack. You can read that full analysis HERE. Needless to say, this is priority number one for the Irish defense.
DON’T LET HOWELL GET COMFORTABLE
What makes North Carolina so good on offense, and thus so hard to defend, is that it’s so good at running and throwing. Sophomore quarterback Sam Howell is one of the nation’s best quarterbacks, and when he’s on his game he can absolutely shred a defense. Howell is coming off a performance in which he threw for 550 yards and six touchdowns in a 59-53 win over Wake Forest.
Howell has tossed 13 touchdowns in his last three games, rushed for two more and he’s thrown at least three touchdowns in 13 of his last 18 starts, and he’s thrown at least two in all but two starts.
When he gets comfortable in the pocket he can pick teams apart with his short-game accuracy, he’s dynamic with in the RPO (Run Pass Option) game and he throws the deep ball extremely well, which Brian Kelly discussed in the video clip at the top of the article.
Howell is going to get some yards, but Notre Dame must make him as inefficient as possible That means first and foremost getting consistent pressure, not letting Howell go through his progressions in the pocket and getting as many hits on him as possible. It also means mixing up looks and keeping him guessing. Howell doesn’t turn it over much, but if the Irish can get the ball a time or two it could be game-changing.
If Howell gets comfortable in the pocket, can go through his reads, step into downfield throws and stay clean he’ll have a big, big day.
LIMIT BIG PLAYS
North Carolina averages 7.7 yards per play, which is fourth in the country and second among Power 5 schools. The Tar Heels rank seventh in yards per pass attempt (10.6), seventh among yards per completion (15.5) and 11th in yards per rush attempt (5.6).
Running back Javonte Williams ranks third in the ACC in yards per rush attempt (7.2), Michael Carter ranks fifth (7.0), and wide receiver Dyami Brown ranks fourth in yards per catch (18.4).
The Tar Heels are as good of an offense as you’ll see at ripping off chunk plays, while Notre Dame has been prone to giving up too many big plays, especially in the pass game. Even if Notre Dame is able to shut the Tar Heels down at times, giving up too many big plays could neutralize things a bit. If Notre Dame can limit the big plays it will have a chance to keep the points down.
FIELD GOALS NOT TOUCHDOWNS
North Carolina is going to move the ball against Notre Dame, that’s just who they are. When the offense gets into the red zone the key for the Irish is holding them to field goals.
In the six games where North Carolina scored touchdowns on over half their red zone trips they average 48.5 points per game. In the two games where they were at 50% or less they average 27.0 points per game.
If Notre Dame can force fields instead of giving up touchdowns this is a game the defense will play well enough in to win.
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