The Fighting Irish (5-0) are 17-point favorites over the Tar Heels, who are 0-6 against the spread as road underdogs under head coach Larry Fedora. UNC (2-3, 0-2 ACC) is 2-16 all-time against Notre Dame, although the Tar Heels won the last meeting, 29-24, in 2008.
As important as this final nonconference contest might be in turning around the 2014 season, UNC’s primary focus has been correcting a seemingly endless outpouring of mental miscues and fundamental lapses. There were roughly 60 missed tackles combined against San Diego State and East Carolina, followed by countless secondary breakdowns against Clemson, and that’s just on the defensive side of the ball.
An inability to generate a ground game and countless missed assignments have derailed Fedora’ typically potent offense, while 48 penalties through five games have hampered all three phases.
When plays break down, players often respond by trying to do more than they’re asked, which compounds the problem.
"That can kill us because if you try to do someone else's job, you're not going to be able to do your own," right guard Landon Turner said. "I think we need to continue to grind and start trusting each other more and doing our own jobs. Like I said, it's that individual battle. Find whatever it is you need to do to fix those little things that you're lacking in."
The plethora of mistakes has frustrated a fan base searching for answers as to why a preseason top-25 team is playing at its current level. Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly touched on that angst when asked about UNC’s defense this week.
“I think that there's been some times where, from a coverage standpoint, that they have cut some people loose,” Kelly said, “but if they put it all together, this is an athletic football team. It could be one of the more athletic defenses that we have seen. But again, it's like anything else; there has to be an attention to detail, and I think they would probably say there have been times where that the attention to detail hasn't been there.”
Those boxes will have to be checked on each and every play if the Tar Heels hope to spring an upset on the Irish. Quarterback Everett Golson (114-of-178 passing, 1,383 yards, 13 TD, 3 INT) directs a balanced offensive attack (429.4 ypg; 57th nationally) that has turned the ball over eight times in five games.
UNC’s defense has made steady progress since the East Carolina debacle, especially in the run game (Clemson and Virginia Tech combined to average 2.6 yards per carry).
“I think we have gotten better each week defensively,” Fedora said. “We missed some tackles early [against Virginia Tech] but we started getting more people to the ball, and that's the key. We've got to get multiple hats to the ball. We've got to swarm the ball carrier, and if we do that and get off on 3rd down, we've got a chance.”
UNC ranks seventh in the ACC in total offense (415.4 ypg) and 11th in rushing offense (138.6 ypg). Assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell leaned on quarterback Marquise Williams to headline the rushing attack against Virginia Tech (19 carries, 94 yards) at the expenses of his running backs (9 carries, 15 yards).
“We would definitely like to get the running backs more involved in the game plan, and to do that, we need to be in the game,” Fedora said. “We need to make sure that we don't turn the ball over early, get out of long yardage situations, and be more consistent as an offense.”
The prospect of UNC hanging around on Saturday has been a concern this week for the Irish faithful. This contest has been circled as a trap game for months, given its location following Notre Dame’s rivalry matchup with Stanford last week and a primetime showcase with top-ranked Florida State next week.
Kelly, however, doesn’t share those same concerns.
“We have a great deal of respect for all of our opponents because they're going to play great football coming in here to Notre Dame,” Kelly said, “and we know that by virtue of the teams that we've played over the past five years.”
UNC’s last win over a top-10 team was a 31-28 home victory over No. 4 Miami in 2004.
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