The UNC offense is arguably the most lethal that Notre Dame will face in 2021. But they are far from the most consistent. The Tar Heels are averaging 37 points per game, but that lofty statistic comes with an asterisk. On two occasions, the UNC offense has put up 59 points, plus showings of 45 and 38 points.
However, in three losses, the Tar Heels have mustered a measly 19 points per contest. That includes a 17-10 loss to Virginia Tech, a 25-22 defeat to Georgia Tech, and a stunning 35-25 loss to Florida State. All three of those defeats came at the hands of teams with a 3-4 record. No doubt, Notre Dame is going to be the best opponent UNC has faced this season, and the Tar Heels are 0-2 on the road this season. But the game is not without matchup problems for the Irish, and the demonstrated potency of the UNC offense makes them an ever-dangerous foe. Here are the biggest challenges UNC presents, and how Notre Dame can stifle the Tar Heels.
UNC Offense Keys: Dual-threat Sam Howell
Sam Howell is the main holdover from the UNC offense that Notre Dame battled last year. Once a top Heisman candidate, the buzz around Howell has calmed due to UNC’s mediocre season. However, Howell is still a great talent and potential first-round NFL Draft selection. And among the biggest improvements to his game is his added dual-threat ability.
Last year, Howell took off running about seven to eight times per game, averaging just over one-and-a-half yards per rush. Those efforts largely came in scramble situations, rather than designed reads. This year, though, Howell has evolved as a runner. With his top two backs from 2020 gone, Howell is averaging over 14 rushing attempts per game just over five yards per pop. He’s second on the team in rushing yards 494. Whereas last year, Howell directed the UNC offense much like a point guard, distributing the ball and letting his playmakers go to work, he’s taking on a much larger role for the Tar Heels this season.
Notre Dame has had their struggles with dual-threat quarterbacks, and somewhat surprisingly, Howell may be one of the best they face. A major key for the Irish will be assigning a QB spy for Howell to avoid him creating when plays break down. Prime options include linebackers J.D. Bertrand and Jack Kiser. The argument for Bertrand over Kiser centers around Kiser being a little more valuable in pass coverage, but either one would be a valuable asset.
Notre Dame’s linebacker room is so critical to their defensive success. Its secondary is missing Kyle Hamilton and has been generally inconsistent. The pass rush has largely been solid and the strength of the defense. The linebackers have been the source of several highlight plays but also have been exposed, such as in the loss against Cincinnati.
UNC Offense Keys: A Second Target
Thus far in 2021, Josh Downs has been far and away Howell’s top target. With 60 receptions, Downs is the only Tar Heel with more than 16 catches. He has eight touchdowns and 14 yards per catch. The Tar Heels have a few other playmakers who have broken off chunk plays, and their contributions are key in order to a more dominant offensive effort. Antoine Green and Emory Simmons are among the big-play threats in the UNC offense and Notre Dame must be wary of any big plays. Those victimized the Irish at the beginning of the season, but they have minimized the damage from explosive plays since the first few games.
For Notre Dame, there is the obvious concern about making sure their cornerbacks match up with the Tar Heels’ playmakers. Cam Hart, Clarence Lewis, and TaRiq Bracy have had each of their first career interceptions, but they’ve been picked on at times and struggled with tougher matchups. They put forth a promising effort last weekend in limiting a dangerous USC offense to just 16 points. In particular, although star wide receiver Drake London amassed 15 catches, he minimally impacted the game. One big catch led to a late touchdown, but other than that, he was largely kept to unremarkable gains and shut down in the red zone. If the Irish can limit Downs to his standard 8-9 catches and minimize their power, then UNC will have to find another playmaker.
At that point, it comes down to whether Notre Dame’s second cornerback and its safeties, playing without Hamilton, can keep everything in front of them. DJ Brown emerged as a key player in Hamilton’s absence during the USC game, so he’ll be a key name to watch, as the Irish work to contain the Tar Heels’ offense.
UNC Offense Keys: Be Versatile
UNC has a running game outside of Howell. Ty Chandler has is averaging 84 yards per game on just under six yards per rush this season. He will likely get 15-20 carries on Saturday night. A somewhat overlooked part of last weekend’s victory was the Irish struggling against the run. Keaontay Ingram gashed the Notre Dame front for 138 yards on 24 carries, his best effort of the season. In particular, he beat Notre Dame on off-tackle runs. He stayed away from Kurt Hinish, the force in the middle of the defensive line, and instead victimized a variety of other players who struggled to step up.
A big player who needs to step up in run defense is Jayson Ademilola. The defensive tackle has looked solid as a pass rusher and made some good plays, but the inconsistency in stopping the run shines at times. With the monstrous Hinish taking on linemen in the middle, Notre Dame needs to have playmakers flanking their defensive captain. If not Ademilola, then Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa. Or Isaiah Foskey if he’s not blitzing. Ingram didn’t break off any big plays, but he consistently moved the chains for the Trojans.
Howell is a more dangerous quarterback, and this offense has a higher ceiling than USC. Given the chance, it can certainly break a defense, and Notre Dame doesn’t want to put pressure on its offense to put up 40 to win. Yes, the up-tempo offense looked good last week, but it’s still a new style and the Irish would much prefer to keep UNC to a low scoring output and allow for their offense to work out the kinks of a different system.
Notre Dame Offense Keys to Victory
UNC’s defense is not the strong suit of this team, so there is less concern about the Irish offense. That being said, it can’t be ignored, and here are three players the Irish need to be on their game in order to put together a solid performance.
This is simple. The offense is better when Kyren Williams is rolling, and they showed that as he racked up over six yards per carry last week. Last season, Williams rolled for 144 yards against the Tar Heels. A similar performance puts the Irish in the driver’s seat on Saturday.
One could replace Braden Lenzy with any other receiver not named Avery Davis or Kevin Austin. In all likelihood, Davis or Austin will be covered by Tony Grimes, who is UNC’s top-performing corner. If the Irish can find Lenzy or Lorenzo Styles matched up against lesser talents in the Tar Heel secondary, they will have matchups they like. Lenzy is noted here because he is yet to break out this season, with no more than 60 yards in a game, and topping 40 just once. He’s due for a breakout game, and this is a good secondary to attack.
Last year, the Irish broke out a ton of multiple tight end sets against UNC. The Tar Heels are struggling with run defense once again, and it could make sense to go back to that strategy. Last season, the two-tight-end sets were standard, and the Irish even featured three and four tight ends in various power sets. George Takacs could step up as a big tight end in power schemes and help run the ball. Notre Dame is beginning to run the ball when they want, and facing a weak run defense, it’s a good time to go back to that power football. The Irish have the ability to run it down UNC’s throat and just demoralize the Tar Heels from the start.
In front of an electric night crowd at Notre Dame Stadium, can the Irish quell the UNC offense and bury the Tar Heels with a powerful offensive attack? The odds look good after a strong performance against USC but certainly, it’s a dangerous home game for Brian Kelly’s squad.