48 year coaching veteran Mack Brown’s North Carolina squad is 4-3 and like half the teams on Notre Dame’s schedule they have had 2 weeks to prepare for the Irish. In their last action a couple weeks ago, they outlasted Miami 45-42.
A year ago, on the day after Thanksgiving, the Irish beat NC 31-17 in Greensboro.
Ranked in the top ten this preseason, The Tar Heels entered the year with high hopes. But in week one Virginia Tech knocked them off 17-10 and it has been an uphill struggle since. Scoring has not been an issue, but defending has been. They got a good win over Virginia in week three 59-39 but they have lost to Georgia Tech 45-22 and Florida State 35-25.
Their national ranks for scoring defense and offense tell a tale. 19th in scoring offense at 36.9 points per game, but 87th defensively giving up 28.9 per game.
In his third year as a starter, quarterback Sam Howell was good against the Irish last year and he is good again this year, all though his completion percentage is down from 68% a season ago to 61% in 2021. On the season the 6-1, 220 lb Howell has thrown for 1851 yards and 18 TDs with 6 interceptions. He has become much more of a dual threat this season and despite being frequently sacked, has gained 494 yards on the ground and scored 5 TDS.
Howell has a clear favorite target in 5-10 sophomore Josh Downs. Downs has caught 60 passes for 837 yards and 8 TDs. Downs plays in the slot and will catch a lot of stuff underneath, but he is explosive. He has long touchdowns to his credit of 63, 59, 45, 37 and 33 yards.
Running the football is a grad transfer from Tennessee, 6-0 210-pound senior Ty Chandler and he is having a big year: 5.5 yards per carry 7 TDs and 588 yards. Chandler, while not a particularly powerful runner, has breakaway speed if he gets to the second level.
All five starters from last year’s Tar Heel offensive line returned this season but they have struggled. The biggest issue seems to be at center where the incumbent has been battling an injury which has limited his play and effectiveness. This line has given up 27 sacks which ranks them 127th nationally and 41 tackles for loss which ranks 100th.
64th nationally in total defense, the Tar Heels have some pieces. Linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel leads the team in tackles, and the middle of their defensive line includes NFL prospect Myles Murphy who leads the team with 4 sacks. Two brothers are also strong players. LB Tomon Fox who is 2nd on the team with 3 sacks and defensive end Tomari Fox. Sophomore Tony Grimes is a good cornerback, causing other teams to shy away from his side of the field.
Yes, the Tar Heel defense has some pieces but on the whole besides their lowly ranking in points given up, UNC is 80th ranked against the run, 78th in sacks and 88th in tackles for loss. Overall they have been prone to breakdowns as is evidenced by poor marks in stopping third and fourth down conversions.
Also of note (and not quite as bad as USC who ranked 127th, but none the less telling) North Carolina ranks 110th nationally in penalty yards given up per game at 67.6.
Big things were expected out of this team this season, but here they stand at 4-3, a disappointment to this point and perhaps looking to turn it all around with what would be a big win this weekend.
Given some of North Carolina’s weaknesses, Jack Coan should have time to pass and Kyren Williams a little room to run, thus the Irish will score points. And they better because the Tar Heels have the ability to score plenty, and Kyle Hamilton being out with injury is a concern. ND’s best scenario will be to pressure and sack Sam Howell into mistakes and to continue on their current trajectory of improvement on offense.
North Carolina under Mack Brown is 1-6 in night road games and playing at home suits the Irish.
The Irish are favored by 3.5, over/under is 62.
TV coverage is on NBC, and begins at 7:30 PM South Bend time. (EDT)
The Fighting Irish Preview Pick:
ND 40 North Carolina 28