Midweek Musings: Notre Dame vs UNC Edition - Defense

Thoughts on Notre Dame football, its recruiting efforts and its matchup against North Carolina, with a focus on the defense.
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Thoughts on Notre Dame football, its recruiting efforts and its matchup against North Carolina, with a focus on the defense.

MUST SEE MATCHUP - DEFENSE

CB #4 Nick McCloud vs. WR #2 Dyami Brown — Notre Dame veteran cornerback Nick McCloud has been a steady force in the Irish defense this season, but he’s going to be tested in a big way this weekend. North Carolina junior Dyami Brown is the league’s best wideout, and he leads the ACC in receiving yards (829) and receiving touchdowns (8).

Brown has been especially good in the last four games, a stretch in which he caught 28 passes for 533 yards and five touchdowns. Each of those numbers would lead the Notre Dame offense for the entire season, and Brown did that in four games.

Mostly a boundary player in the UNC offense, Brown will be opposite of McCloud all game long. The Irish veteran has not been tested this season in the way he will be by Brown. If Brown goes off against Notre Dame like he has over the last month the Tar Heels will score a lot. If McCloud can be at his best the Irish defense will have a chance at keeping the points down.

BIGGEST CONCERN - DEFENSE

There are two big concerns in this game from a Notre Dame perspective. Can Notre Dame slow down the North Carolina run game, and can the Irish defense get pressure on the quarterback.

North Carolina is one of the most balanced offenses in the country. Only the Tar Heels, Ohio State and Ole Miss currently average over 300 passing yards and 200 rushing yards per game. Notre Dame has to figure out which part of the offense it wants to slow down, and my bet is on the Irish trying to stop the ground game.

If North Carolina’s ground game gets rolling the offense is hard to stop.

A key part of slowing down the UNC pass attack is getting pressure on the quarterback. Sam Howell is a tough player that will hold the ball as long as he can to find open receivers. The nature of UNC’s RPO and play-action concepts also asks Howell to hold the ball a bit longer to allow those downfield routes to get going.

North Carolina has allowed 22 sacks in eight games, but nine of those sacks (40.9%) came in losses to Florida State and Virginia. That’s not a coincidence. If Notre Dame can consistently harass Howell it has a chance to win keep UNC in check. If that happens the Irish will roll in this game.

STATS THAT MATTER - DEFENSE

There are five numbers that I’ll keep my eye on.

1) Keep North Carolina’s ground game to less than 175 yards and below 4.5 yards per rush. North Carolina is 0-2 this season in games where it rushed below 4.5 yards per carry. It barely beat BC (26-22) in another game in which it rushed for 4.51 yards per rush.

2) Get at least 8 hits on the quarterback in the backfield.

3) Limit North Carolina’s per catch average to below 14.0 yards per.

4) Force at least 2 turnovers.

5) Keep UNC below 50% on third down.

STEP UP TIME - DEFENSE

The entire defense needs to step up against North Carolina, but just like I said against Clemson, to win big games like this you need your stars to play like stars.

That means linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah must be a force against the run, he must play clean football and he needs to make big plays. That means safety Kyle Hamilton needs to be a force against the RPO game and make plays on the football. That means veteran ends Daelin Hayes and Adetokunbo Ogundeji need to dominate the edge against the run and provide pressure on the quarterback.

If the stars play like stars the Irish will not only win, they’ll win comfortably.

RECRUITING THOUGHTS

It was not a surprise that 2021 defensive end commit David Abiara decommitted from Notre Dame. He tried to get back on track with the Irish, but that was all but ruined when he was charged with criminal trespassing in late October.

Notre Dame went out and landed underrated end Will Schweitzer when Abiara flirted with leaving during the summer, and now that he’s out of the class the Irish need to land one more end in the class. The only target on the board right now, at least that I know of, is Highland Spring (Va.) High School standout end Kelvin Gilliam Jr.

The Top 100 end is currently committed to Oklahoma, and if you put any stock in how young athletes conduct themselves on social media it would look like the Sooners are in good position to keep him in their class. Notre Dame is still pushing and Gilliam is still listening, but the entire staff (Mike Elston, Clark Lea, Brian Kelly, Mike Mickens) needs to be involved here.

If the staff can flip Gilliam it would be a huge, huge boost for the Irish and would be a coup for the staff.. Not only would he replace Abiara from a numbers perspective, he’s also a much better player.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

Notre Dame needs this kind of performance from Hayes against the Tar Heels.

FILM TO WATCH

Here's a look at Gilliam's junior film (He did not play as a senior due to Virginia canceling high school football):

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