While the battle of the Notre Dame offense and Carolina defense is a bad on bad, the matchup of the Fighting Irish defense and the Tar Heel offense is clearly the good on good matchup.
Notre Dame's defense has been good to outstanding at times this season, while the Tar Heels come into this matchup as one of the most prolific offenses in the country through three games.
North Carolina had a lot of success in this matchup a season ago while the Notre Dame defense dominated it in 2020. Who gets the edge in 2022? We'll see, but let's look at how they stack up heading into the matchup.
Notre Dame Rush Defense vs UNC Rush Offense
Advantage: North Carolina
Outside of quarterback scrambles, the Notre Dame defense shut down California's ground attack, holding the Bears to just 112 yards, and the Cal backs had well under 100 combined yards. The problem is California wasn't a very good rushing team, and the Tar Heels will be much, much better.
Notre Dame struggled stopping the run in the first two games. Both Ohio State and Marshall went for at least 170 yards on the ground, and both had success pushing Notre Dame around in the fourth quarter. That changed against the Bears, but this weekend we'll find out if it was a one-off against a mediocre offense, or if Notre Dame has turned the corner with its rush defense.
A key to success last weekend was the play of the defensive line, led by interior players like Jacob Lacey, Jayson Ademilola and Howard Cross. They'll need to once again be dominant against the Tar Heel ground attack, but it's imperative that Notre Dame's ends be at their best as edge setters, and the linebackers need to play much, much better.
North Carolina isn't an overly physical rushing team, but they have talented young backs and they are schemed very well. The way the Tar Heels execute their RPO and play-action game makes their run game even more effective, and quarterback Drake Maye is a scrambling threat.
Adding to the challenge of this matchup is that starting middle linebacker JD Bertrand will have to miss the first half after being ejected for targeting in the second half of the win over Cal.
Notre Dame Pass Defense vs UNC Pass Offense
This is a matchup of two aspects that are playing very, very well. Notre Dame's pass defense has been surprisingly strong this season while the North Carolina pass offense is lighting up the opposition.
Maye is completing 74.2% percent of his passes, is averaging over 300 passing yards per game, is going for 9.6 yards per pass attempt (which is outstanding) and he has an 11-to-1 touchdown to interception ratio early in the season. Adding to the challenge of this matchup is that 1,000-yard receiver Josh Downs is set to return this weekend after missing the last two games.
Downs being out has actually been good for Maye by forcing him to go through his reads and take what the defense is giving him instead of keying in on his star receiver. That has allowed him to develop an early bond with Kobe Paysour and the North Carolina tight ends, who rank second, third and fifth on the team in catches through three games.
Notre Dame held Ohio State to its lowest yards per attempt average (6.6) since it played Alabama in the 2020 national title game, and it did so without applying a lot of pressure. Notre Dame's secondary has been quite sticky in coverage this season, with freshman Benjamin Morrison emerging and junior Clarence Lewis making vast improvements. Standout corner Cam Hart is showing signs of returning to form, which gives the Irish a talented and long group of cover players on the outside.
Inside, nickel corner TaRiq Bracy has been arguably Notre Dame's best defender through three games, and the Irish will need him to be at his best against a Tar Heel offense that does a lot of different things to threaten and stress slot defenders.
The key for Notre Dame is pressure. It absolutely must get pressure on Maye, and consistently so. We saw a breakout this season from Isaiah Foskey last week, but he and the rest of the pass rush will need to be on top of their game against the Heels.
Notre Dame Scoring Defense vs UNC Scoring Offense
Advantage: North Carolina
The biggest surprise for Notre Dame has been its success on defense while struggling in the red zone and on third down. Oh, and Notre Dame has yet to force a turnover this season. All three of those areas will need to get A LOT better if the Irish are going to slow down a potent Carolina offense, and if the Irish are going to start stringing some wins together.
Carolina has been quite good at turning red zone possession into touchdowns, something OC Phil Longo's offenses have had some issues with in the past. The Tar Heels are also excellent on third-down through three games.
These areas will be key to success for both sides on Saturday.
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