No. 5 Notre Dame on Tap

Inside Carolina takes an in-depth look at Notre Dame, as UNC will play its first ranked opponent of 2014 during a trip to South Bend for a 3:30pm kickoff on Saturday.

Notre Dame Intro
Many people had Notre Dame as a dark horse candidate to make the first-ever college football playoff this season. This team has lived up to those expectations thus far, climbing up to No. 5 in the AP Poll with a perfect 5-0 record. The Irish are coming off an emotional 17-14 home win over rival Stanford, but the biggest story for this program this week might be what is taking place off the field. On Sunday, the school announced that the academic honesty hearings of five players – including projected starters KeiVarae Russell, Ishaq Williams and DaVaris Daniels - had finally reached its conclusion. Head coach Brian Kelly told reporters that the players’ eligibility decisions were imminent and if any were reinstated this week, they could play but likely would not start against North Carolina. Their potential return, however, is low on the list of concerns for UNC (2-3). The Fighting Irish are balanced on both sides of the ball, and given the Tar Heels’ struggles in all three phases, UNC will need to put together its first complete effort of 2014 if it’s going to have any chance of pulling off a major upset on the road.

After being suspended for the entire 2013 season due to academic violations, quarterback Everett Golson has returned to his pre-suspension form. UNC head coach Larry Fedora described Golson as “the one who makes it all go.” The senior has provided a dynamic presence through the air (1,383 yards, 13 TDs, 3 INTs) as well as on the ground (46 carries, 138 yards, 4 TDs). The Fighting Irish are averaging 429.4 yards of offense per game that has had a healthy split between passing (276.6 ypg) and rushing (152.8 ypg). The backfield employs a three-headed monster (Cam McDaniel, Tarean Folston, and Greg Bryant) that have all rushed for over 170 yards. This unit has also been terrific in the red zone, having converted 19 of 22 tries in the red zone (14 of which were for touchdowns).

Things won’t get any easier for this erratic UNC offense when it squares off against one of the best defenses in college football. The Irish have the third-best scoring defense in the FBS schools, having surrendered just eight touchdowns and 60 points all season (an average of 12 points per game). It’s clear that the switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 defense under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder has clearly benefited this young, but tenacious defensive line. The smallest member of this front four is sophomore Romeo Okwara (6-foot-4, 260 lbs.) as the remaining three members of the line are all above 280 pounds. If you throw in a talented linebacking corps, and a veteran secondary, you have all of the ingredients for a complete defense.

“Fortunately or unfortunately, we’re fixing to play a really good football team, so I look at it as a tremendous opportunity. Other people might not look at it that way right now, but I think it’s a great thing that we get an opportunity to go on the road and play the No. 5 team in the country on national TV.” – Fedora

“I think we do a lot of things to prevent having somebody stand up and really try to re-center. We talked more about it being one game. It’s Stanford and the fans are going to be excited and it’s a great atmosphere, but in totality it’s one game. We can’t play up each week. You can’t do it here at Notre Dame or you’re going to stumble.” – Kelly in addressing his team after Saturday’s emotional win over Stanford

Notable Matchups

UNC’s Defense vs. Golson
The dilemma this week will be similar to the one associate head coach Vic Koenning faced when preparing for Clemson: how will they approach an offense that is truly balanced? Golson might not be as athletic as Clemson freshman Deshaun Watson, but what he lacks in explosiveness he makes up for in experience. Even after missing an entire season, the Myrtle Beach, S.C. native (and former UNC commitment) has looked as comfortable as he did when he directed Notre Dame to the national championship game back in 2012. Much like Marquise Williams, Golson is a valuable rusher (46 carries and 138 yards), and will give this Carolina defense another thing to worry about. In the passing game, Golson has been highly efficient, completing 64 percent of his balls against just three interceptions. When UNC sold out against the run to the run against Clemson, Watson lit up the Tar Heels secondary with his arm. Golson isn’t quite as dynamic as Watson, but nonetheless, he will serve as yet another problematic quarterback for Koenning to contain.

UNC’s Pass Protection vs. Notre Dame’s Pressure
The Fighting Irish scheme isn’t overly blitz heavy, but that hasn’t stopped its personnel from getting to opposing quarterbacks. Overall, this defense has recorded 12 sacks for a net loss of 93 yards over the course of its first five games. What should be even more fearsome for the UNC offensive line is that all three levels of the Irish defense have gotten involved, as 11 different players have recorded a half a sack or greater. Up until last Saturday’s loss, this young Tar Heel offensive line had allowed just five sacks on the year, but Virginia Tech changed all that. The Hokies’ aggressive blitzing scheme brought down Williams five times. UNC must get better play up front to give its quarterback enough time to churn out first downs and help keep the Tar Heel defense off the field.

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