Keys to the game: How can Notre Dame football knock off an undefeated North Carolina team?

Justin Frommer
South Bend Tribune
Notre Dame defensive lineman Isaiah Foskey (7) celebrates as California quarterback Jack Plummer (13) lays on the field during the Notre Dame vs. California NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

Notre Dame Vs California

These keys to the game could decide if Notre Dame (1-2) can get back to .500 with a win against North Carolina (3-0) on Saturday in Chapel Hill. Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. EST at Kenan Memorial Stadium and the game will be televised on ABC.

Know where Josh Downs is at all times

When Downs is healthy, he is as dangerous of a receiver as anyone in the country. Back from an injury, Saturday will be his first game since North Carolina's season-opener against Florida A&M.

As a sophomore, Downs set UNC records in catches (98) and receiving yards (1,273) — including 10 catches for 142 yards in the Tar Heels' 44-34 2021 loss to Notre Dame in South Bend.

Oct 16, 2021; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA;  North Carolina Tar Heels wide receiver Josh Downs (11) with the ball as Miami Hurricanes safety Amari Carter (5) and safety Kamren Kinchens (24) defend in the second quarter at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

In his lone game this year, Downs drew 12 targets, the majority on shorter throws (0-9 yards) from UNC quarterback Drake Maye, which is on par for how he's been utilized throughout his career. Defending that will require extra focus from Notre Dame's linebackers, especially since team captain JD Bertrand will miss the first half due to his second-half targeting penalty against Cal last week.

Downs is also a strong runner after the catch, recording 696 yards, good for second in college football last year.

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Let Drew Pyne take shots down field, because they are going to be there

Drew Pyne's first collegiate start was as conservative as it gets, throwing 20 of his 23 passing attempts either behind the line of scrimmage or fewer than 10 yards downfield.

It worked against the Golden Bears by getting the Irish's perimeter playmakers in space, and could be successful against against UNC's porous defense. Downfield shots will also be there and Pyne may need to let it fly a couple of times to keep the Tar Heels honest.

Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne (10) looks to throw during the Notre Dame vs. California NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

North Carolina's defense has struggled, giving up more than 37 points per game against some average competition (Florida A&M, Georgia State, Appalachian State), ranking 123rd out of 131 FBS programs in total defense and allowing 275 passing yards per game (112th).

Three of the Tar Heels' five secondary starters have a Pro Football Focus grade below 50, the worst being junior cornerback Storm Duck (48.5), who's been picked on all year, allowing 19 catches on 25 receptions and four touchdowns.

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Duck has been lined up as a wide corner for most of the season, which could equate to a big game from Braden Lenzy and Lorenzo Styles, Notre Dame's primary wide targets.

Attack UNC's Ed Montilus all game long

Notre Dame's pass rush finally got home against Cal, recording six sacks (the most in college football last week) and adding 27 pressures (second most).

The Tar Heels have been average in pass rush this season with a PFF grade of 62.3 (76th in football) and even worse blocking the run with a grade of 53.7 (100th in football).

Sep 3, 2022; Boone, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels offensive lineman Ed Montilus (63) during game action between the Appalachian State Mountaineers and the North Carolina Tar Heels at Kidd Brewer Stadium.

The most vulnerable blocker has been starting left guard Ed Montilus, who has allowed eight quarterback hurries and nine pressures in three games.

Look for Notre Dame's interior lineman, Howard Cross III, Jacob Lacey, Jayson Ademilola and even Isaiah Foskey on some stunts or interior blitzes, to have another big game.

Send calculated pressure at Drake Maye

There is a risk that comes with sending pressure at a pass-happy offense like North Carolinas, which could leave Notre Dame's secondary exposed.

Maye, a freshman, has thrown the 15th-most yards in college football (930), completing over 74% of his passes and recording 11 touchdowns to one interception.

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He doesn't struggle often, but that completion percentage dips from above 80% to 51% when he is under pressure or blitzed.

Notre Dame defensive coordinator Al Golden will have to call a smart, calculated game, knowing when to rush three and force Maye to find an open player, and when to send the house at him.

Having a balanced running game will be important

When facing a high-octane offense, controlling the pace of play and limiting possessions is key.

The Irish tried to do this in their season-opening loss at Ohio State. The only problem was Notre Dame only ran for 76 yards on 30 carries. It also had the quarterback running threat from Tyler Buchner, which is no longer the case this season.

Notre Dame running back Audric Estime (7) runs the ball during the Notre Dame vs. California NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.

The Irish showed their first signs of life in the run game against the Golden Bears, finishing with a season-high 147 yards on 41 carries, and controlled the game offensively in the second half because of that.

The best way for Notre Dame to stop North Carolina from scoring points is keeping the Tar Heels' offense on the sideline, so taking another step forward in its run game will be key.