Countdown to Kickoff: UNC vs. ND

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – No. 22 North Carolina's first test this season as a ranked team is none other than the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a historic program also battling for respect on the national stage.

It's been seven long years since North Carolina (4-1, 1-1 ACC) was last ranked in the AP poll, and the Fighting Irish (4-1) are hoping to earn a national ranking by upsetting the Tar Heels on Saturday.

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Countdown to Kickoff
Emotions have been running high for the Tar Heel faithful this week, following a 38-12 dismantling of then-No. 23 Connecticut last weekend. Add in the elements of the Notre Dame lore and a national ranking, and it raises a legitimate question as to how this North Carolina program has been able to maintain their composure during this week's game preparation.

But head coach Butch Davis has done his best to brush those concerns away throughout the week.

"Whether we're ranked or not ranked, it isn't going to make a difference when we kick the ball off on Saturday," Davis said on Wednesday.

The pivotal matchup in this contest centers around Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen (104-171, 12 touchdowns, 6 interceptions) and North Carolina's pass defense (12 interceptions leads the nation). Five Notre Dame wide receivers have reeled in 11 catches or more on the season, led by Golden Tate's 23 receptions for 397 yards and three touchdowns.

Clausen – who sat out last season's contest with Southern California – told reporters on Wednesday that North Carolina's secondary presented the biggest challenge of his collegiate career.

"What he's going to need to do this week is he's going to have to be patient and that's a little different," Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis said earlier this week. "When teams are playing coverage, which is what they've been doing most of the year, it forces a quarterback to be more patient. And that's where you're really challenging a real quarterback, will you be patient enough to take what they give you rather than wanting to sling it down the field every play."

UNC pass defense is allowing 201.4 yards per game, and ranks 19th nationally in pass defense efficiency (102.3)

"It's going to be huge," sophomore cornerback Kendric Burney said. "Both teams are sitting at 4-1… As a [defensive back], you're definitely looking forward to that challenge. They're coming in here with their receivers catching four or five passes a game, so we definitely have to get our p's and q's right as secondary, but if communicate we'll be all right."

North Carolina's offense, on the other hand, rode on the coattails of the defense and special teams in last weekend's blowout victory over the Huskies, totaling just 263 yards on 49 offensive plays. But Shaun Draughn's emergence at running back (109 yards and 1 TD on 19 carries) provided backup quarterback Cam Sexton (20-35, 3 TD, 1 INT in two games) with the ability to manage the offense while making a minimal amount of mistakes.

"We've got to be able to not only move the ball and make first downs, but we've got to make some big plays ourselves both in the running game and in the passing game," Davis said.

It's worth noting that Sexton's pass efficiency rating (165.87) is just behind injured starter T.J. Yates' rating (166.87), but because neither player has played in 75 percent of North Carolina's games, they cannot appear in the NCAA rankings. Wake Forest's Riley Skinner currently leads the ACC with a 132.17 rating.

Kickoff is set for 3:30 p.m. at Kenan Stadium (ABC/ESPN).

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