Here are five keys for No. 2 Notre Dame (8-0, 7-0 ACC) against No. 19 North Carolina (6-2) at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Saturday (3:30 p.m. EST on ABC).
SET THE TONE EARLY
Coming off an idle week and playing in its first Friday game since 1981, Notre Dame cannot afford to start rusty against UNC. Every possession matters against the Tar Heels when considering their explosive offense. UNC comes into the matchup top 15 in the country in most offensive categories, including No. 4 in total yards per game (563.4) and No. 10 in scoring (43.1 points per game). In two seasons under head coach Mack Brown, the Tar Heels have not lost a game by more than seven points. The Irish jumping out to an early lead also will benefit their ball control strategy.
Maybe the best way Notre Dame can slow down UNC’s offense and quarterback Sam Howell is to play the keep-away game. The Irish have been successful with that ball-control strategy multiple times this season. And they rank No. 10 nationally in average time of possession (34:05 per game). By having long, sustained drives on offense, Notre Dame reduces its opponent’s opportunities. Staying off the field that long can also knock opposing offenses out of rhythm. If the Irish deploy this strategy again, being efficient on third down and balanced offensively will be critical for them.
BE IN SYNC
Notre Dame will be without two starters on its offensive line: center Jarrett Patterson (foot) and right guard Tommy Kraemer (appendectomy). Sophomore Zeke Correll and senior Josh Lugg are in line to replace them, respectively. For the Irish to be efficient on third down and balanced offensively, they need Correll and Lugg to perform well in their heightened roles. Correll and Lugg seem to bring the talent to handle these responsibilities. Whether this new offensive line group will collectively gel, though, remains to be seen.
Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei exploited the wide side of the field against Notre Dame so much that junior cornerback TaRiq Bracy was benched. True freshman Clarence Lewis has since been the main option at field corner, and for the first time all season, he was listed as the starter in this week’s two-deep depth chart. UNC may try to take advantage of Lewis’ inexperience and replicate the success Uiagalelei found when targeting that side of the field. The Irish should look to put Lewis in favorable situations with safety help and not have him on an island, especially against Tar Heel wide receivers Dyami Brown (45 catches for 829 yards and eight touchdowns) and Dazz Newsome (34 receptions for 455 yards and three scores).
STOP THE RUN
Not even Clemson running back Travis Etienne could challenge Notre Dame’s vaunted run defense, tallying just 28 yards on 18 carries. The Irish are No. 4 against the run, allowing just 85.1 rushing yards per game. They face another formidable rushing attack in UNC. The Tar Heels feature two running backs poised for 1,000-yard rushing seasons: junior Javonte Williams (120 carries for 868 yards and 15 touchdowns) and senior Michael Carter (116 rushes for 807 yards and four scores). UNC is tied with Notre Dame at No. 14 in the country in rushing offense (233.5 yards per game). The Irish passing the Tar Heels in that category after Friday likely would indicate the game went well for them.