Notre Dame faces a more than formidable challenge this Saturday when the Fighting Irish hit the road for the second time this season. They’ll be making their second trip to Chapel Hill, NC in the last three years to take on the North Carolina Tar Heels’ high-powered offense.
UNC boasts the No. 4 scoring offense in the nation at 51.3 points per game and it is also the No. 8 team pass efficiency offense, just six spots behind another team Notre Dame has already face this year, Ohio State.
"We know we’re going to face a really good offense,” Irish head coach Marcus Freeman said of the Tar Heels this week. "Last year they put up a lot of yards against us (and) a lot of points.”
The Tar Heels registered 564 yards of total offense and put 34 points on the scoreboard in that game at Notre Dame Stadium last year, when Freeman was Notre Dame’s first-year defensive coordinator. The Irish still won 44-34, thanks to 523 total yards of their own.
Tar Heel offensive coordinator Phil Longo is in his fourth season at the helm of the North Carolina offense. He has been with Mack Brown since Brown came out of retirement to take over in Chapel Hill in 2019.
His college coaching roots started 22 years ago at Division III William Paterson. His only other FBS job was at Ole Miss for the two years before he joined Brown’s staff.
North Carolina is yet to play a Power 5 team this season, but they’ve put up video game numbers against three teams. UNC opened with a 56-24 win over Florida A&M in week zero. They followed that with a 63-60 win over Appalachian State and then downed Georgia State 35-28.
"They’re a talented offense,” said Freeman of Longo’s unit. "The quarterback is playing really, really good football right now,” said Freeman. “And I know he’s a young guy, but he is playing as good as any quarterback in the country.”
The quarterback is redshirt freshman Drake Maye. He ranks 15th nationally with 930 passing yards and is 6th with a 74% completion percentage. Maye has 11 touchdown passes and just one interception in his first three career starts.
He played in two games last year, going 7 for 10 for 89 yards and a touchdown pass in relief of Sam Howell, who is now with Washington Commanders. Maye’s biggest game was a 352-yard effort with 4 TD passes in the win over App State.
"We’ve got our work cut out for us,” Freeman said. "They’re going to try to take advantage of what you give them, defensively. That’s what they’re able to do and they’re going to go at different tempos, they’re going to make you get lined up fast. That was something, last year, we weren’t able to do, so we have to be prepared and make sure we have a good plan to try to limit what they do offensively.”
Maye and the Tar Heel offense has done the bulk of its damage without their best receiver, Josh Downs, in the lineup the last two games. Downs led the ACC with 101 receptions last season for 1,335 yards and eight touchdowns. He ranked in the top 11 in the country in the FBS in yards receiving per game.
He started his junior season with nine catches for 78 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener against Florida A&M, but he was seen nursing his knee after a TD grab in that game and hasn’t played in North Carolina’s last two games.
Downs has had an extra week to rest as well, since UNC had a bye last weekend. Freeman expects him back this weekend.
"I don’t know if you can completely shut down Josh Downs,” Freeman said. "He’s a really good football player. I don’t love hearing a stat line of 10-plus catches and a hundred and some yards, it’s too much.”
Freeman was referencing Downs’ 10-catch, 142-yard performance against Notre Dame last year. It was one of five games last season Downs had at least 123 yards. His career-best was a 203-yard, two touchdown game against Virginia.
"We can’t let Josh Downs get his,” Freeman said. "We’ve got to find ways to try to limit his catches and what he does after the catch. That’s probably the most dangerous thing Josh Downs does. He gets the ball in his hands and makes people miss and takes a three-yard gain and makes it a 20-yard gain.
"That’s going to be a huge challenge for us,” continued the Irish head coach. "How we’re going to defend that, who we’re going to put over him, what coverages we’re going to play on him. But he’s a talented football player that we’ve got to be aware of.
The bigger challenge for Notre Dame is how diverse the North Carolina offense has been without Downs on the field. The Tar Heels have seven players with at least one touchdown catch this season. Compare that to Notre Dame’s offense, which has a total of three touchdown passes and a total of seven players not named Michael Mayer who have at least one reception through three games.
Wide receiver Kobe Paysour currently leads North Carolina with 14 catches for 172 yards and two touchdowns. Tight ends Kamari Morales and Bryson Nesbit each have two touchdowns and have 135 and 116 yards, respectively. And running back Omarian Hampton has 38 carries for 228 yards (6.0) and 5 touchdown runs.
Add to all of that the lopsided balance in experience between the game’s head coaches. Marcus Freeman was born in 1986, two years before UNC head coach Mack Brown first became a head coach in his first stint at North Carolina. Brown will be coaching in his 409th career game Saturday. Freeman will be coaching his fourth.
"Coach Brown has been, I’m sure, through a lot of different scenarios and situations that I haven’t been through or (am) just starting to go through,” Freeman said.
"There is nothing I can say that says, hey this is going to help us in terms of the experience that Coach Brown has,” he continued. "But listen, we both have the same amount of experience with our current roster of this current year, and that’s the reality of it.”
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