North Carolina run defense faces tall task in Notre Dame

Mike Vorel
South Bend Tribune

Statistical mismatches don’t get more pronounced than this.

Through five games in an already forgettable 2017 season, North Carolina (1-4) — which hosts No. 21 Notre Dame at 3:30 p.m. on Saturday — has allowed eight offensive plays of 50 yards or more.

That’s tied for dead last out of 128 FBS programs nationally.

On the other side, Notre Dame (4-1) — winners of three consecutive games by an average of 28 points — has piled up eight offensive plays of 50 yards or more.

That’s tied for second nationally.

Talk about opposite ends of the spectrum.

Just don’t tell North Carolina coach Larry Fedora.

“I’m sure our fans love (hosting Notre Dame). It will be great for Chapel Hill and it’s good for everybody,” Fedora said on Monday. “For us, it’s the next game. We’ve got so much to worry about within ourselves right now, just making sure we’re right.

“So we don’t have a lot of time to spend thinking about who our opponent is or what our opponent is.”

OK, so Fedora doesn’t have time to worry about Notre Dame.

Maybe that’s for the best.

If he did, he’d see that the Irish currently rank first nationally in red zone touchdown rate (90.9 percent), third in yards per carry (7.1), seventh in rushing (301.4 rushing yards per game) and 14th in scoring offense (41.4 points per game).

Then, he’d consider the fact that his own group sits at 113th in rushing defense (221.8 yards per game) and 109th in yards per carry defense (4.97), having surrendered three runs of 50 yards or more (117th).

Unfortunately for the Tar Heels, these two programs at the moment are a perfectly nightmarish match.

“Oh, they run the ball,” Fedora said matter-of-factly, when asked what makes the Irish offense so effective. “They find ways to run the football. They’ve been very effective running the ball. So they’ve got to be doing a great job up front. The running backs have been very, very productive, and that quarterback (junior Brandon Wimbush) can run.

“They’re going to run the football and play-action pass.”

And, if recent history is any indicator, the Irish are going to gain a lot of yards and score a lot of points. Take Louisville, for example. In a 47-35 victory over North Carolina on Sept. 9, the Cardinals rushed for 312 yards and 7.1 yards per carry.

Louisville is averaging 184.8 rushing yards per game against all other opponents.

And, porous run-stopping aside, North Carolina also has surrendered five passes of 50 or more yards this season, which ranks 126th out of 128 FBS programs.

Fedora did note, if you’re looking for positives, that his defense was often assignment-correct last weekend against option offense Georgia Tech.

The bad news: the Yellow Jackets still ran for 403 yards and 6.1 yards per carry, cruising to an anticlimactic 33-7 win.

“I thought defensively we were in position throughout the entire game,” Fedora said. “The biggest factor for us defensively the other day was just missed tackles. There were plenty of opportunities to get off the field and we missed some tackles.

“We had guys in place where they were supposed to be, so our guys did a great job with their eye discipline and just being disciplined on their jobs throughout the game. We just had too many missed tackles, and a lot of those ended up being explosive plays for them.”

Miss more tackles on Saturday, and the explosive plays will surely follow.

Spurn the damning statistics, and maybe North Carolina can avoid repeating the same results.

“They’re traditionally a great program, and everybody knows that. It’s a great opportunity for our team,” Fedora said. “It’s a great opportunity for our team.”


Twitter: @mikevorel

Georgia Tech running back Clinton Lynch (22) gets past North Carolina linebacker Cole Holcomb (36) as he runs the ball in the first half of an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 30, 2017, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)