It’s the biggest matchup of the season for the UNC football program as it welcomes in the Notre Dame Fighting Irish to Chapel Hill on Saturday.
While the Tar Heels are 3-0 this season, there have been some major issues with the defensive unit and it’s a group that needs to get its performance turned around.
Notre Dame has a backup quarterback entering his second start and first road start of the season.
After going through some changes during the bye week, North Carolina looks to come out with a lot of energy on Saturday.
If a good performance from the defense happens this weekend, it could be a huge turning point early on in the season.
Here are the defensive keys to the game for UNC against Notre Dame.
Win the line of scrimmage
Nov 27, 2020; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Ian Book (12) is pressured by North Carolina Tar Heels defensive lineman Raymond Vohasek (51) and linebacker Tomon Fox (12) in the second quarter at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
The Notre Dame offense has lacked any sort of firepower this season and a big reason for that is a lack of effectiveness running the ball.
The Irish are averaging just 3.3 yards per carry this season and have just two runs longer than 15 yards. While the offensive line has typically been a strength of the team, the entire rushing attack has been limited and that means winning the line of scrimmage is key in limiting the Irish offense.
North Carolina’s defensive line has been inconsistent in the run game. After allowing just 56 yards in the opener on the ground, it’s been over 230 yards allowed in each of the last two games, including 288 against Appalachian State.
If UNC can limit an explosive plays, which is not what Notre Dame is known for so far this season, then it could sure up the rest of the defense to have a better performance.
Limit the touches of Michael Mayer
Notre Dame tight end Michael Mayer (87) makes a catch for a touchdown during the Notre Dame vs. California NCAA football game Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022 at Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend.
Notre Dame Vs California
Notre Dame has just 48 completions on the season — for reference Drake Maye has 72 in the same amount of games played. Because of that, there aren’t a ton of weapons on the outside that the Tar Heels need to be worried about.
But, it’s across the middle of the field that could be an issue. Tight end Michael Mayer was a Third Team All-American last season and returns as the go-to target for Notre Dame this year again. He has a team-high 15 receptions for 145 yards and two touchdowns this season.
At 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, he is not only a big red zone threat, he also does a tremendous job on third down and in middle of the field routes.
He will be a consistent threat up the middle for Notre Dame and it will be an interesting matchup for the Tar Heels.
If UNC can limit his touches, it could be a very long day for the Irish.
Force Drew Pyne to beat the UNC DBs over the top
Oct 9, 2021; Blacksburg, Virginia, USA; Notre Dame Fighting Irish quarterback Drew Pyne (10) throws a warmup pass before the game against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Lane Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
Through one and a half games, Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne has had his ups and downs but one thing remains consistent — his inability or reluctance to throw the ball deep.
While Notre Dame head coach Marcus Freeman was open about having a more ‘lateral’ passing game, he also mentioned their inability to hit on a few long balls that has slowed down the offensive production this season.
Pyne threw for 150 yards with a 6.5 yard per attempt average in his first start last week against Cal. He had 17 completions but only seven of them went for longer than six yards.
While Mayer and wide receiver Lorenzo Styles are first and second in terms of receptions on the year, the running backs for the Irish are a huge part of the passing game up to this point.
It’s no secret how the UNC defensive backs have played extremely poor to start the season so will the Irish try to expand their passing game and go for more deep shots to try to open up the offense?
While it may sound crazy, if North Carolina can contain the short passes and force Notre Dame to try to beat the UNC secondary over the top, it will be interesting to see which struggling force wins out.
Play fundamental football
Sep 10, 2022; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels linebacker Chris Collins (17) celebrates after a stop against the Georgia State Panthers in the second half at Center Parc Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
The theme coming out of the bye week for the Tar Heels has been about getting back to fundamentals.
This North Carolina defense has the most talent its had in years and for it to be ranked near the bottom in nearly every statistical category is mind boggling.
There have been missed tackles, lapses in judgement, poor communication and more throughout the first three games for this defense. All of those things are changeable. While the scheme may be shifted game-to-game at times, it seems to be the fundamentals that are holding the Tar Heels defense back.
This Notre Dame offense is not flashy or high powered. So, if UNC makes the right play and the smart play, there shouldn’t be a ton of explosive plays for the Irish.
Just get back to fundamental football and this could be a turnaround for a defense that needs one in the biggest way.