Notre Dame enters Saturday afternoon's showdown with a 4-1 record after outlasting Stanford, 28-21, last weekend. The Fighting Irish's four-game improvement through five games, compared to last season's 0-5 start, is the best turnaround by a Football Bowl Subdivision team in nine years. Head coach Charlie Weis is 26-16 in four seasons at his alma mater, despite posting a 3-9 record in 2007. Thirty-one players who started at least one game last fall returned for the 2008 campaign, and that learning experience creates an intriguing parallel to North Carolina's current 4-1 record.
UNC marks the fifth BCS opponent that the Fighting Irish have faced this season, defeating Michigan (35-17), Purdue (38-21) and Stanford at home while losing to Michigan State (23-7) in East Lansing. Notre Dame also beat San Diego State, 21-13, in its season opener in South Bend, Ind.
"You've shown that you can start to win at home. The crowd's getting into it. You're getting into it. It's a lot of fun. But now we've got four out of five on the road. We need to go win on the road. This is a formidable opponent." – Weis on his message this week to his players
"We have to stay in coverage and get pressure up front on their quarterback. We have to stay in coverage because we know they have a good quarterback and good receivers, and a good offensive line. So, we know we have to play with sound technique and play well in coverage." – UNC linebacker Quan Sturdivant
"I think that we're on the cusp. I think this game this week – you talk about polls, [but] I can't worry about the polls. But you go beat North Carolina at North Carolina, [then] I'd say the odds are you'll be in the top 25 next week." – Weis on Notre Dame's exclusion from this week's rankings
Fighting Irish Spotlight
If you follow college football recruiting, then you're probably familiar with Jimmy Clausen. His family was already well-known in the collegiate setting, with older brothers Rick and Casey playing quarterback at Tennessee earlier this decade. But the Westlake Village, Calif. product was not only expected to surpass his siblings' talents on the field, but nearly every other quarterback coming out of high school in recent memory.
Tabbed the No. 1 recruit nationally in the 2007 recruiting class, Clausen's numbers seemingly backed up those claims, as he had thrown for 10,764 yards and a state record 146 TD passes during his high school career.
But recruiting rankings vanish when you step on the college football field, and Clausen was no exception. The 6-foot-3, 217-pounder started nine games in 2007, throwing for 1254 yards with seven touchdowns and six interceptions. Clausen needed to sit out two games near the end of the season "to recover mentally and physically," according to Notre Dame's official web site.
What a difference a year makes. Clausen threw for a career-high 347 yards and three touchdowns against Stanford following a 275-yard performance against Purdue a week earlier. He has thrown at least three touchdown passes in five of his last eight games.
Weis attributes his young quarterback's improvement to learning the system and adapting to the college game.
"I think it's a major step when the quarterback doesn't force balls down the field and is willing to throw to his flair control," Weis said. "I think that's a major step."
The Fighting Irish will need Clausen to continue his steady evolution this weekend in Chapel Hill, especially with a subpar rushing attack (103.6 ypg, 105th nationally).
Matchups to Watch
UNC's Ground Game vs. ND's Run Defense
North Carolina's trio of running backs – Greg Little, Shaun Draughn and Ryan Houston – have received criticism during the early part of the season for their minimal production, and for good reason, as the Tar Heels rank 89th nationally with 120.8 yards per game.
But after a solid showing against a Miami run defense ranked top-30 nationally, Draughn exploded for 109 yards and a touchdown on 19 carries against Connecticut. That was an important development for a team that is trying to keep the pressure for backup quarterback Cameron Sexton to a minimum.
"I'm concerned with going against North Carolina, who is running the football with power," Weis said earlier this week. "You can't let them go into the first quarter and gash you in the running game, regardless of what formation we use."
Notre Dame's run defense ranks 59th nationally, giving 139.4 yards per game (4.53 ypc). More troubling for the Irish, however, is that they allowed three national bottom dwellers in ground game yardage – San Diego State (118th), Michigan (87th) and Purdue (97th) – to churn out a solid 4.5 yards per carry average in those contests.
The Irish defense has been opportunistic this season, recovering seven fumbles in addition to their seven interceptions, although they are averaging just 4.6 tackles for loss per outing (100th nationally).
North Carolina has struggled to win the time of possession battle in 2008, and if the ground game can continue to improve and devour an increasing amount of clock, life will become that much easier for Sexton against a Notre Dame pass defense that ranks 35th nationally in pass efficiency defense (108.4).
UNC's Brandon Tate vs. ND's Kick Coverage Units
Brandon Tate is hoping for a repeat performance of his 2006 UNC-ND game in South Bend, where the senior returned a kickoff 90 yards for a first-half and finished with 162 all-purpose yards. The Fighting Irish, however, have other plans.
Notre Dame ranks third nationally in kickoff return defense (15.7 ypr), despite not having one touchback to its credit. The Fighting Irish are also only allowing 6.2 yards per punt return, good for 40th nationally.
"They have done just an outstanding job in covering punts and kickoffs," Davis said. "Their gunners do a great job and their kickoff coverage unit [does as well]. They do an excellent job spacing and running down and challenging the returns. They've made the other teams pay price of having to go the long hard way."
Tate ranks 20th nationally in kickoff returns (27.7 ypr) and third in punt returns (24.8 ypr), but recent opponents have made an effort to kick away from him to avoid showing up on Sportscenter. Against Miami and Connecticut, Tate returned just four kickoffs for 87 yards and one punt for eight yards.
Expect Notre Dame to attempt to employ a similar strategy, considering Purdue's Desmond Tardy (31.8 ypr, 6th nationally in kickoff returns) did not register a single kick return two weeks ago in South Bend.
If the North Carolina defense can force the Irish to punt from their own side of the field, Tate will have opportunities to add to his highlight reel.
* All but two of Notre Dame's touchdowns this year have been scored by freshmen or sophomores (16 of 18). Senior wide receiver David Grimes added the other two scores.
* Davis and Weis faced one another on 13 occasions through their respective tenures in the NFL. The Patriots knocked off the Browns three times (2001, 2003, 2004) in Davis' four seasons in Cleveland, and the Cowboys defeated the New York Giants six times in 10 meetings between 1990-94.
* These two programs will play for the 18th time on Saturday. The Irish hold a 16-1 (.941) edge in the all-time series, including a current six-game winning streak. Notre Dame and North Carolina have not met on the gridiron in Chapel Hill since 1975.