Opponent Outlook: Little has gone as planned for North Carolina

Tyler James
South Bend Tribune

The losses and injuries have quickly piled up for North Carolina this season.

In the sixth year under head coach Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels have only managed one win in the first five games. A 53-23 victory over Old Dominion has been the lone bright spot for the struggling Tar Heels.

Notre Dame (4-1) has been pegged as a significant favorite for Saturday’s game in Chapel Hill, but North Carolina has kept the score close in losses to California, Louisville and Duke.

Could last week’s 33-7 loss at Georgia Tech mark the start of an even steeper drop off for the Tar Heels? We caught up with Greg Barnes of Inside Carolina to analyze UNC.

• North Carolina has been ravaged by injuries this season. Which injury has been the most debilitating to the success of this team?

Barnes: “That's difficult to isolate given the sheer volume of injuries is what has hampered UNC the most. As Larry Fedora said on Monday, the team's lack of execution against Georgia Tech was not due to one particular player, but to various players on various snaps. The Tar Heels were without 19 players in Atlanta, including eight starters.

“If I had to highlight the most significant injuries, I would say starting middle linebacker Andre Smith, a two-year starter who called the defense and had emerged as a team leader, as well as senior wide receiver Austin Proehl, who was the team's leading receiver and one of the key leaders this offseason.”

• LSU graduate transfer Brandon Harris won the starting quarterback job to start the season, but he was quickly replaced by redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt. How much did Harris' inability to solidify the position change the expectations for this offense?

Barnes: “Harris did start in the opener against California, although he technically did not win the quarterback job in camp as both players entered the game knowing a rotation was in place. Your point is valid in that Harris was expected to be the stopgap for UNC this season while Surratt got another season under his belt before taking over in 2018.

“Harris struggled to adapt to the offense during training camp, Surratt improved during the summer and then limited turnovers early in the season and thereby earned the job. It's difficult to put blame on any one position, though, given the aforementioned injuries. UNC was missing 13 offensive players last weekend and was already relying on inexperienced players to carry the offense this season.”

• Notre Dame's running game has been a clear strength to start the season, and North Carolina's defense has allowed 221.8 rushing yards per game. Is there any reason to believe the Tar Heels can fare better against the Irish?

Barnes: “Yes. The Tar Heels have actually been solid against the run aside from the Louisville loss. They held Cal to 3.0 yards per carry, Old Dominion to 3.1 yards per carry, Duke to 4.1 yards per carry and were effective against Georgia Tech's run scheme until the offense left them on the field for too long and they finally wore out.

“There's no doubt that run defense has been a serious issue for UNC dating back to 2014, but this group is better than the statistics suggest thus far. Likely getting defensive tackle Jalen Dalton back this week will be beneficial as well.”

• If the Tar Heels are going to move the ball against Notre Dame's defense, what will be the blueprint for North Carolina's offense?

Barnes: “That's a great question. Larry Fedora's offense is built upon the concept of short passes, long gains, but an inability to hit consistently on explosive plays paired with a woeful third-down conversion rate has limited this team to 24 points over the past two weeks.

“It starts up front. UNC has four seniors with starting experience along the offensive line and yet the Tar Heels have been unable to run the ball, which places an inordinate amount of stress on Surratt. UNC relied on outside zone reads and its perimeter passing game against Georgia Tech without much luck. Fedora may need to get creative in the run game to generate some momentum on Saturday.”

• Does a home game against Notre Dame represent a chance to wipe away a terrible start to the season for North Carolina?

Barnes: “It undoubtedly would help, although the 16.5-point spread is the largest for UNC as a home dog since October 2004. Even before the injuries, a bowl game would have been a quality accomplishment for the Tar Heels. That option included wins over Cal, Duke and Georgia Tech, which all resulted in losses.

“That being said, UNC has not given up and will be revved up to play a ranked Notre Dame team. If the offense can find a rhythm and the defense continues its solid play, the Tar Heels can be competitive. Don't forget that UNC has led in the fourth quarter in four of its five games this season.”

tjames@ndinsider.com

574-235-6214

Twitter: @TJamesNDI

North Carolina quarterback Chazz Surratt bobbles the ball while making a handoff to Jordon Brown (2) during the first half of an NCAA college football game against Duke in Chapel Hill, N.C., Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

No. 21 NOTRE DAME (4-1) vs. NORTH CAROLINA (1-4)

WHEN: Saturday, 3:30 p.m. EDT

WHERE: Kenan Memorial Stadium; Chapel Hill, N.C.

TV: ABC

RADIO: WSBT-FM (96.1), WNSN-FM (101.5)

LINE: Notre Dame by 17