Though it won’t be the top-25 matchup that was originally anticipated, No. 11 Notre Dame still faces a substantial test with North Carolina coming to South Bend this weekend for another primetime matchup under the lights.
Though the Tar Heels (4-3) have had an up and down season thus far, there’s no denying the team’s offensive prowess. Quarterback Sam Howell is one of the best signal callers in the country, full stop. The team is ranked 14th in the nation in total offense, racking up 471 yards per game and also puts up 36.9 points per game, a figure that ranks 18th nationally.
Unsurprisingly, the Notre Dame players are expecting to be challenged against the Tar Heels.
Irish senior safety DJ Brown, who will be starting in place of the injured Kyle Hamilton and is coming off of a career-best 7 tackle performance against USC, thinks Howell’s dual-threat ability makes him especially dangerous.
“Sam Howell is good," Brown said of the Tar Heel quarterback. "I didn’t realize he was as good of a runner as he is as well, so that’s another part of his game that we have to worry about. And then they have some good weapons outside so it’s a challenge for our defense but I think we’ll be up for the test.”
Howell, who entered the season as a Heisman favorite, is completing 61 percent of his passes and has thrown for 1,851 yards 18 touchdowns and just six interceptions. On the ground, Howell has rushed for 494 yards and five touchdowns.
Thanks to Howell’s ability as both a thrower and runner, the Tar Heels utilize a ton of RPO (run pass option) plays. It’s something Brown and the Irish safeties are conscious of.
“As a safety it’s really just about being attentive to the RPO because you don’t know if they’re going to run or throw it,” Brown noted. “But for safeties our main responsibility is going to be stopping the pass, so not getting sucked up by the run and just being locked in on what we have to do. I think if we do that, we’ll be fine.”
Notre Dame junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey, who leads the team and is tied for second in the country with 8 sacks through seven games, also thinks Howell’s running ability is where the Tar Heels have been able to find the most success.
“I feel like that’s the biggest challenge that I’ve seen in film with other teams going against UNC that they have a challenge with,” Foskey said in regards to Howell’s ground game. “I feel like him being a running quarterback and being accurate when he throws the ball too, that’s just something that we had to take into consideration that we’ve been prepping and going against.”
Though North Carolina as a team is led by their explosive offense, according to sophomore tight end Michael Mayer, Notre Dame’s leading receiver, North Carolina’s defense won’t be easy to deal with either.
“They got some good returning D-linemen, a lot of depth up front with some big guys up there that we’re going to have to be blocking, some good linebackers and they have some speed in the secondary, so they’re a good defense and we’re preparing for it this week,” Mayer said.
It should prove to be a competitive matchup between two talented teams who are led by two of the most experienced head coaches in college football in Mack Brown and Brian Kelly. A win for Notre Dame could mean a re-entry into the top 10 in the national rankings, while a win for North Carolina could breathe new life into what’s been a relatively disappointing season thus far.
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