Who, and What, to Watch

O'Malley's game preview offers a handful-plus of questions whose answers will determine Saturday's winner in South Bend.

1.) A Running Game Resurgence?

4.0, 3.9, 3.7, 1.7 -- Notre Dame's average yards per rush over their last four contests, Stanford, Syracuse, Purdue, and Michigan, respectively.

While 4.0 is respectable against a stout defense such as the Cardinal, it combined with the other three is concerning. So too is a total of 45 rushes by the Irish that have resulted in loss, no gain, or gains of just one or two yards (none of those counted resulted of short-yardage, chain-moving carries).

North Carolina's rush defense ranks 92nd nationally, but it's improved of late, allowing 3.0 yards per rush (157 yards) to Virginia Tech last week and just 92 yards to Clemson the week prior -- that after being steamrolled by East Carolina to the tune of 343 rushing yards at the outset of the Tar Heels three-game skid.

(Clemson passed for 436 yards but was limited to 2.2 yards per rush vs. UNC's stunting front.)

It's not an "easy" running game matchup for Notre Dame's revamped front, but it should be a matchup in which quarterback Everett Golson need not throw 40 times for the Irish to prevail.

In short, Notre Dame won't (can't) win at Florida State if it's forced to throw 40 times. Building confidence by getting the ball rolling on the ground is essential against a North Carolina defense that isn't on par with the likes of Michigan, Syracuse, Stanford, Florida State, Louisville, or USC.

2.) New Look Nickel?

Senior Matthias Farley ranks, per Irish Eyes film reviews, as Notre Dame's 10th-best player in 2014. He attacks scrimmage, he destroys the short passing game, and he makes plays in space against pass-catchers and ball carriers alike.

And he's vulnerable downfield -- a place North Carolina, Florida State, and Arizona State are all likely to test over the next month.

In steps sophomore Devin Butler, not at Farley's nickel spot, but at left cornerback, allowing 5th-year senior Cody Riggs to move into the coverage nickel role for which he is ideally suited. It's not an every-down change -- consider it prudent on 3rd-and-8 or more -- but it's one the Irish defense began to employ last week and should continue to in preparation for the passing offenses on tap. Or to be more accurate, for next week's aerial assault. Butler needs more playing time this week to prepare for the Seminoles.

Allow Farley, a Charlotte, N.C. native, to continue to set the tone from the base defense and in standard 3rd-down situations.

3.) Cleanliness, Thy Name is Everett

It's not intentional, but Notre Dame's quarterback is routinely (always) the last of 8-9 Irish players to enter the post-practice interview room each Wednesday.

Why? He's apparently quite hygiene conscious. Being showered and clean is appreciated by interviewers, of course, but the senior triggerman would do well to continue with his attention to detail between the lines, too. Golson's seven turnovers over the last eight quarters is at least five too many. The only way North Carolina can stop the Irish for 60 minutes Saturday is if Brian Kelly's crew turns it over in ill-timed situations (read; the red zone going in or black zone going out).

Golson the neat freak needs to reappear Saturday when he's in charge of a recently sputtering offensive attack. Keep it clean.

4.) Time to Tap the Potential?

Last Saturday was described as a "Cam McDaniel day." That is, Notre Dame wanted to know what it was going to get with each handoff and each pass protection assignment from its running back. What it received was a winning effort.

Can either sophomore Tarean Folston or redshirt-freshman Greg Bryant provide more of a spark with greater opportunity? Isn't this week an ideal time to find out?

5.) Is South Bend Trap City, USA Saturday?

A win over Stanford. A date with Florida State. A chance at a No. 1 ranking at the conclusion of the latter. The eyes of the nation on both.

And then there's the Tar Heels. Losers of three straight. Top 25 pre-season, nowhere near the top 55 at present. But talented nonetheless.

Saturday's setting: a second-straight Notre Dame home game (sleepy crowd guaranteed after last week's exhalation and exaltation) against a sub par foe with nothing to lose.

It's not easy to get up for everyone opponent equally over a 12-game slate. My guess is this week will provide a reminder of that reality.

However, the Irish can quell any Tar Heels uprising by continuing the streak noted below…

6.) Can North Carolina Score in the Third?

Notre Dame has yet to allow a third-quarter point while scoring 31 of their own.

That type of momentum change would likely prove too much for a prohibitive underdog (the Irish are favored by 16.5 points) to overcome.

If Carolina is to threaten the Irish to the end, a quick start out of the break will likely be included.

7.) Will These Five Continue Their Rise? Chris Brown, Cole Luke, Corey Robinson, Elijah Shumate, Andrew Trumbetti…

Notre Dame 37 North Carolina 20

IrishIllustrated.com Top Stories