Opponent outlook: Potent North Carolina offense could challenge Notre Dame's stout defense

Carter Karels
South Bend Tribune

In his first career start, quarterback Ian Book helped Notre Dame win at North Carolina.

A sophomore at the time, Book filled in for the injured Brandon Wimbush. Book went 17-of-31 passing for 146 yards and a touchdown with two interceptions while turning 12 carries into 45 yards in the 33-10 victory on Oct. 7, 2017.

Book faces the No. 25 Tar Heels (6-2, 6-2 ACC) at Kenan Memorial Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C., again on Friday (3:30 p.m. EST on ABC) with 30 more starts under his belt for the No. 2 Irish (8-0, 7-0).

This matchup figures to be favorable for Book. UNC ranks below average nationally in most of the major defensive categories and struggles against mobile quarterbacks like Book. The Tar Heels have allowed at least one rushing touchdown to an opposing quarterback in five of their last six games.

Led by quarterback Sam Howell and running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, UNC features one of the best offenses in the country. The Tar Heels rank No. 4 in total offense (563.4 yards per game), No. 8 in passing efficiency (182.23 average rating), No. 10 in scoring offense (43.1 points per game) and tied for No. 14 in rushing offense (233.5 rushing yards per game).

With a prolific offense and porous defense, UNC has a tendency to have shootouts. The Tar Heels won their last game 59-53 over Wake Forest, and both teams combined for 1,348 total yards and 60 first downs.

Should a high-scoring affair be expected between Notre Dame and UNC? We caught up with Taylor Vippolis, a former UNC wide receiver who covers the Tar Heels for 247Sports’ Inside Carolina, for more insight.

UNC appears to be on an upward trajectory under second-year head coach Mack Brown. Where is this program headed under him?

Vippolis: “It is hard to be anything but impressed with the job that Mack Brown has done in his return to Chapel Hill. Before him, the program had won just five games total the previous two seasons. This season, whether truly justified or not, the Tar Heels were ranked as high as fifth in the AP Poll. He has this team trending well in the right direction and ahead of schedule for what most thought would be a massive rebuild. In normal years, the ACC is Clemson, and then that second spot is wide open for the taking. I believe North Carolina is the program that is in the best position to be the school that can solidify the spot behind the Tigers.”

This game will be played the Friday after Thanksgiving with both teams coming off an idle week. Are you expecting a weird game? Will the atmosphere be weird? Will everything be weird?

Vippolis: “In a year unlike any other, I almost expect every game that UNC is involved in to be some sort of weird. UNC’s two losses are to Virginia and Florida State, who outside of the wins against the Tar Heels, are a combined 2-10 in conference play. In the last game the team played, UNC gave up 53 points and 606 yards to Wake Forest and still managed to win, because it scored 35 unanswered points to erase a 21-point deficit. This year, the state is only allowing seven percent capacity in Kenan Stadium. So far, the atmosphere — or lack of one — hasn’t affected UNC with the team a perfect 4-0 at home.”

You’ve got Howell. You’ve got two running backs poised for 1,000-yard seasons in Williams (120 carries for 868 yards and 15 touchdowns) and Carter (116 rushes for 807 yards and four scores). Then there’s wide receiver Dyami Brown (45 catches for 829 yards and eight touchdowns). What makes these players special, and what kind of game are you expecting from them against Notre Dame’s defense?

Vippolis: “This UNC offense is loaded with NFL talent at the skill positions. Sam Howell is on pace to shatter every school record at the quarterback position. UNC hasn’t lost a game by more than seven points in his two years under center because of his ability to always have his team in games. He’s got a great touch on his deep ball and has shown that he is willing to take what the defense gives him. Next, Williams and Carter are both top 10 backs in college. Heading into the idle week, Williams led the nation in rushing touchdowns and total touchdowns among running backs. He led all rushers in yards, first downs, tackles broken and runs of 10-plus yards.

“Dyami Brown is a receiver that can take the top off defenses with his speed. Another player worth mentioning is Dazz Newsome at wide receiver, who, like Brown, posted 1,000-plus receiving yards last year and is coming off a career-high 189 receiving yards the last time out. Notre Dame may well indeed have a stout defense, but it hasn’t faced an offense as UNC’s (Clemson included). In terms of stopping this offense, I’ll believe it when I see it.”

Why has North Carolina’s defense struggled this season?

Vippolis: “The previous staff left a loaded offense behind. On defense, not so much. There is a wide belief that this is a personnel issue for UNC, and it is going to take recruiting/developing to get right. Where do you start when talking about the struggles UNC sees on this side of the ball? It has issues containing mobile quarterbacks, issues holding its gap integrity in the rush game and issues guarding receivers between the numbers. At moments this year, UNC has shown flashes of sound defensive football, but overall it has been largely inconsistent. The bright spot on UNC’s defense is former quarterback turned preseason All-American linebacker in Chazz Surratt. When the defense is playing smart and allows Surratt to just worry about his assignment, he is a player who jumps off on film.”

For the Tar Heels to win, do they need this game to be a shootout?

Vippolis: “For UNC to beat almost any team, a game has to be a shootout. However, just last year, Clemson came to Chapel Hill, and UNC was a two-point conversion away from what could’ve been the biggest upset in school history. Behind a historic offense, this team has more than enough talent to pull off an upset.”

Score prediction: Notre Dame 45, North Carolina 38.

Vippolis: “The Tar Heels are used to being the hunted and not the hunter, so I’m looking forward to watching a team play with almost nothing to lose. In the end, I just haven’t seen enough defensively to feel even remotely confident that UNC has enough stops in it.”

North Carolina running back Javonte Williams (25) runs away from Duke linebacker Shaka Heyward (42).
North Carolina head coach Mack Brown pulls down his face mask while calling out to the field against the Boston College this season.