The second ranked Irish are back to take on the 19th ranked Tar Heels of North Carolina on Friday at 3:30pm. After coming off the second bye week of the season, Notre Dame will look to avoid a sluggish start having to play the day after Thanksgiving. North Carolina is no slouch either. Coming in at 6-2 and in fourth place in the ACC, the Tar Heels will be led by one of the best passing quarterbacks in the league – Sam Howell. The key to Notre Dame’s success on Friday will be stopping (or at least slowing down) this Tar Heels offensive attack.
Friday’s big story will revolve around Notre Dame’s offensive line. One of, if not the most dominant line in the country will be missing two starters for this upcoming contest. As mentioned previously, starting center Jarrett Patterson will miss the remainder of the season after suffering a foot injury in the game against Boston College while Tommy Kraemer has been ruled out after an emergency appendectomy. The Irish have plenty of talent at this position, but the problem arises with game experience. Losing two of the five offensive line starters is not something that should be overlooked. Although I still have confidence in this position group as a whole, I would not be surprised to see a couple more penalties or mistakes made this week that Irish fans are not used to seeing.
Although North Carolina has an extremely talented roster, top to bottom, their defense has been giving up quite a few points in their last games and I would love to see this trend continue for the Irish. In their last four games, the Tar Heels have given up an average of just under 35 points per game. Notre Dame’s offense has been clicking in their last few outings as well and with the Tar Heels putting up some serious points with their offense, it will be important that the Irish capitalize on any and all of their scoring drives. Notre Dame’s offense has been a much more balanced attack in the past few games – the wide receivers really stepping up and showing the true talent they have. I also feel that Offensive Coordinator, Tommy Rees, has been doing a much better job with play calling. As the season has progressed, Rees has seemed to have put quarterback Ian Book into better game time situations, allowing him to thrive in these moments. As long as this trend continues, I would expect the Irish offense to be able to put up a decent amount of points on Friday. On this side of the ball, I would love to see wide receiver Ben Skowronek back up his performance against Boston College with an equally impressive outing. Coach Brian Kelly touched on the importance of this bye week for the players to heal up both physically and mentally. Kyren Williams’ slight ankle injury looks to be a thing of the past as Coach Kelly informed the media that Williams was full-go in their workouts this week. I expect the receiving trio of Ben Skowronek, Javon McKinley, and Avery Davis to continue to lead the way in this facet of the game and should be able to take advantage of a depleted North Carolina secondary.
Defensively, the Irish have a tough task at hand in trying to slow down the Tar Heels offense. Led by true sophomore quarterback, Sam Howell, this North Carolina offense has playmakers scattered all across the field. Howell has already tossed 23 touchdowns through the first eight games of the season so far while only throwing six interceptions. Howell’s two favorite targets in the passing game are junior wide receiver Dyami Brown and senior wide receiver Dazz Newsome. These two receivers are responsible for more than half of the Tar Heels passing touchdowns this year. On the ground, Howell will be joined in the backfield by junior running back Javonte Williams or senior running back Michael Carter. While these two backs have gotten almost the same amount of touches through the first eight games, Williams is responsible for 15 rushing touchdowns already. This is just one example of how potent this offense is. North Carolina is no stranger to high scoring affairs, but Notre Dame’s defense has been stout this year as well. This is a classic matchup of strength versus strength. My biggest fear is giving Howell enough time to lock in and throw the deep ball. He’s one of the best and most accurate down field throwers in the ACC and if the Irish defensive line isn’t able to get pressure in the backfield, the Notre Dame defense will be in for a long Friday afternoon.
Notre Dame only opened as four and a half point favorites for this week’s contest – one of the closer opening lines this entire season. I do think that Friday’s matchup will be on the higher scoring side of things with both offenses coming into stride. Notre Dame looks to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball and if the Irish can do that, I expect the outcome to be favorable. Yes, North Carolina’s offense is very talented but I am hoping that Notre Dame’s defense will have a bit more talent, top to bottom, and will be a key factor if the Irish are to win. It has a chance to be a nail biter but I am going to predict a 42-31 Notre Dame victory. With huge college football playoff implications on the line, a win for the Irish would greatly improve their playoff chances. Go Irish. Beat Tar Heels.