How does No. 11 Notre Dame beat North Carolina? By following these four keys to the game.

Tyler James
ND Insider
Notre Dame’s Kyren Williams (23) pushes off USC’s Isaac Taylor-Stuart (6) during the Notre Dame-USC NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

These keys to the game will likely decide if No. 11 Notre Dame (6-1) can beat North Carolina (4-3) on Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 p.m. EDT on NBC).

Handcuff Howell 

North Carolina’s offense goes as quarterback Sam Howell goes. The explosive offense relies on Howell to generate the offense with his arm or legs. Howell has expanded into more of a dual-threat quarterback in his junior season with four games of 300-plus passing yards and four games of 90-plus rushing yards. He didn’t rush for more than 41 yards in any games last season. 

The best way to limit 6-foot-1, 220-pound Howell’s effectiveness is to pressure him. Because of his running threat, Notre Dame must stick to its assignments in not letting him escape the pocket. A porous offensive line that has allowed 3.86 sacks per game should aid the Irish defensive line in creating a long day for Howell. 

Keep riding Williams 

Competence on Notre Dame’s offensive line has finally allowed running back Kyren Williams to reach his workhorse potential. In each of the last two games, Williams led the Irish in carries and catches. The workload Williams was given against USC — 25 carries and six catches — turned into his most productive game of the season with 180 yards (138 rushing and 42 receiving). 

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North Carolina hasn’t been particularly efficient in defending the run with opponents rushing for nearly 159 yards per game. That should provide ample opportunities for Williams to eat up yards. Quarterback Tyler Buchner and a hopefully healthy Chris Tyree at running back can help Williams in the running game, but he needs to be the star of the show. 

Stay healthy, safeties 

Losing All-American safety Kyle Hamilton for at least this week has already stretched Notre Dame’s thin depth chart at safety. The Irish opted to move rover linebacker Isaiah Pryor back to strong safety as a stopgap behind Houston Griffith. And head coach Brian Kelly said the coaching staff needed the week to figure out who would emerge behind DJ Brown at free safety. 

If Brown would have been ejected against USC for targeting, it’s unclear who would have replaced him. Brown and Griffith will already be under a lot of pressure to provide sound coverage and tackling against North Carolina’s run-pass options, but they also need to do so without getting injured. Staying healthy might require more luck than skill on Saturday night, but it will certainly be important. 

Notre Dame’s Houston Griffith (3) during the Notre Dame-USC NCAA college football game on Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021, at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Don’t slow down 

Even though controlling the time of possession provided a winning blueprint for Notre Dame against North Carolina last season, the Irish don’t need to try to replicate it. Notre Dame’s offense isn’t built in the same way and hasn’t shown the capability to sustain long drives with any consistency. So offensive coordinator Tommy Rees shouldn’t be afraid to continue having the offense play with tempo to best suit quarterback Jack Coan. 

A tempo offense can still control possession if shorter plays keep adding up to first downs. But that should be an unintended benefit rather than the main objective. Notre Dame should continue to play with pace, put its offense in positions to succeed and not limit its opportunities to score. 

Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.