Greg Barnes: North Carolina has the talent and offensive scheme in place to pull an upset in most settings, which is why the 2-3 start with three consecutive double-digit losses has the coaches scratching their heads and the fan base foaming at the mouth.
Despite the multitude of missed assignments at Clemson two weeks, UNC was only down eight points early in the second half. And although Larry Fedora’s offense is churning out the lowest yards per play (5.4) in his seven years as a head coach, the Tar Heels are still scoring 36 points per game, and that’s against a schedule that includes four teams ranked in the top-50 nationally in total defense.
If, and this is a substantially large if because it hasn’t happened yet this season, UNC cut limit its self-inflicted miscues and play a relatively clean game, Notre Dame could face a legitimate challenge on Saturday.
2.) 70 points. 50 points. 34 points. These are numbers ND fans can't fathom defensively. At its best, what is the Tar Heels defense capable of Saturday in South Bend?
Barnes: North Carolina’s defensive issues start up front, which is also the area that’s seen the most improvement since the ECU debacle. Associate head coach for offense Vic Koenning was determined to stop the run in Death Valley and trusted his secondary to play well enough on the back end to limit Clemson’s explosive plays. What happened instead was multiple missed assignments, including one play in which the Tigers had two receivers running wide open down the right sideline.
What most people overlooked was that the plan to stop the ground game actually worked. In its past two games, UNC has held Clemson and Virginia Tech to a combined 2.6 yards per carry. And don’t let the 34 points against Virginia Tech fool you. The Hokies started two touchdown drives inside the red zone and Kendall Fuller added a pick-6 to the scoring totals. Despite the secondary breakdowns, UNC ranks T-13th nationally in interceptions (8) and maintains a positive turnover margin (0.4).
UNC’s defense is not as bad as it looked against East Carolina. Then again, it couldn’t be any worse.
3.) How has former Irish pledge Elijah Hood performed as a true freshman in Chapel Hill and will he be a focal point of the Tar Heels offense Saturday vs. an Irish run defense that has yet to allow more than 47 yards from an opposing RB?
Barnes: Hood has stood out amongst a solid running backs corps due to his physical nature and vision. The problem for Hood, however, has been an inexperienced offensive line that has lost three different starters for varying lengths of time due to injury this season. Hood emerged as UNC’s primary back at Clemson (13 carries, 71 yards, TD), yet received just three carries against Virginia Tech as assistant head coach for offense Seth Littrell leaned on quarterback Marquise Williams (19 carries, 94 yards) to anchor the ground game.
Larry Fedora has stressed the need to give Hood more touches this week, although his run/pass scheme is built around taking what the defense gives. Virginia Tech consistently stacked the box, thereby limiting the touches for Hood and his fellow running backs.
4.) Besides quarterback Marquise Williams and Hood, who should Irish fans keep an eye on Saturday from North Carolina? Perhaps a player from both sides of scrimmage?
Barnes: Ryan Switzer earned All-America honors last season as a punt returner (5 TDs) and has solidified his role this season at A-back in Fedora’s no-huddle spread offense. The sophomore has caught 24 passes for 269 yards thus far, including a tunnel screen that he took 75 yards for a score against Clemson. He’s been held in check in the kick return game, although his quicks in open space make him an explosive play threat on most every play.
Defensively, Brian Walker is emerging as an all-conference type player at field corner. In four games, he’s intercepted three passes for 149 yards, including a 100-yard interception return for TD against San Diego State. The sophomore is an aggressive, steady defender in a mistake-prone secondary and opponents have already started to avoid his side of the field.
5.) How have Tar Heels fans adjusted expectations after a 2-3? Are they traveling to South Bend expecting an inspired effort? A win? Or hoping for a good showing?
Barnes: UNC was a top-25 team heading into the season for good reason. Solid talent at the skill positions and improved depth on the defensive side of the ball appeared to the foundation for a legitimate run at the ACC’s Coastal Division. The actual product on the field has failed to live up to those expectations, due to missed assignments, poor tacking, questionable coaching decisions and an abundance of penalties.
UNC fans are clearly frustrated, and while they understand that the Tar Heels have the talent to compete, they haven’t seen their team play up to its potential yet in 2014. At this point, a good showing would help rebuild confidence in the fan base to give it some reason to hope for a second-half turnaround, similar to last season’s 5-1 close.