by Sharon Thorsland
North Carolina returns to action this Saturday taking on Notre Dame at Kenan Stadium (3:30 on WBT). This is not the matchup people might have predicted when the season started. The Fighting Irish were ranked 5th in the country then but have since gone 1-2 with losses to Ohio State and Marshall under new head coach Marcus Freeman. The Tar Heels though are undefeated at 3-0, even if two of those wins were nail biters over App State and Georgia State. UNC is coming off a bye, while the ND barely beat Cal for its first win of the season.
A big reason for Notre Dame’s struggles is the season-ending injury to starting quarterback Tyler Buchner, who went down in the Marshall game. Junior Drew Pyne took over, and he’s been underwhelming, throwing for just 150 yards in his first start last week. He does have some talented targets in star tight end Michael Mayer and receiver Lorenzo Styles, who’s averaging nearly 14 yards a catch. But Notre Dame really wants to run the ball, and they’ve got a bruising attack featuring a pair of excellent backs in Chris Tyree and Audric Estime. Tyree is play maker who can hurt you on the ground or through the air, and Estime is a physical runner who had 76 yards and a score last week. Slowing them down will be key for the Tar Heels, who (say it together now) have struggled to stop the run for years. The good news is that ND’s offense has struggled to put up points, managing just 18 a game.
The bad news is that the Notre Dame defense seems to have found its way in the Cal game, allowing just 112 rushing yards and picking up six sacks, two of them by Jacob Lacey. He leads an aggressive Irish front seven that also features edge rusher Isaiah Fokey and Howard Cross the third, he leads the team in tackles. Starting middle linebacker JD Bertrand is suspended for the first half of the game due to a targeting penalty last week. The ND secondary is stingy, they’re allowing just 164 passing yards per game. UNC counters with an offense that can rack up points in a hurry, the Tar Heels are averaging over 51 points per game, that’s 4th in the nation. Quarterback Drake Maye is having a sensational season, throwing for over 900 yards and 11 touchdowns with just one interception. And Maye could get two of his top receivers back this week in All-American Josh Downs and senior Antoine Green, who have both been sidelined with injuries.
While Notre Dame might not look impressive on paper, this will still be a very tough test for the Tar Heels. The Fighting Irish certainly have a much more talented roster than any of the three teams they’ve played so far this season, and they looked like they turned a turner in the second half of the Cal game. Plus, there’s that nagging little stat that says history is not on North Carolina’s side – Notre Dame has won four straight against the Heels and is 20-2 in the all-time series, which dates back to 1949. So I’m assuming no one is overlooking the Fighting Irish in this one, in spite of their early season struggles. As Coach Mack Brown said earlier this week, the Tar Heels are going to have to play a great game to beat Notre Dame. Can they do it? Absolutely. Will they do it? I think so. UNC has a superior quarterback and more offensive weapons, I say they win a close one. Go Tar Heels!