Much like Notre Dame, the Tar Heels came into this season viewed as improved, but in most eyes a year away from any substantial success. But second-year head coach Butch Davis has North Carolina playing better than expected, and a BCS bowl might not be out of the realm of possibility this season for the team in Chapel Hill.
The Irish secondary will be facing their toughest challenge of the season in Tate, Nicks and Foster. Nicks leads the ACC in receiving with 24 catches for 412 yards and four touchdowns. Tate ranks third in the league with 16 catches for 376 yards and three scores. Both are certainly big-play threats, as Tate has a 74-yard reception and Nicks has a long of 69 yards.
Foster flies a little under the radar with Nicks and Tate, but it was him who caught the game-winning touchdown against Miami. He has 10 catches for 102 yards and two touchdowns, and is ripe for a big game at anytime with Nicks and Tate around him.
Another guy Davis would like to get more involved in the offense is the tight end Pianalto. Davis loves him as a player, raving about his ability, but so far he has just five catches for 56 yards.
Achilles Heal(s): The Tar Heels have struggled to run the football, and it's unknown how quarterback Cameron Sexton deals with pressure from the defense.
Whether it's because of a lack of push from the offensive line, or a lack of cohesiveness or whatever, North Carolina has consistently struggled to run the football since Davis was hired.
The Tar Heels have shown signs of life in this department the past two weeks, but the jury is still out on if this team now has a running game to coincide with the talented group of receivers.
In the 38-12 victory over previously undefeated Connecticut on Saturday, Shaun Draughn became the team's first 100-yard rusher of the season, gaining 109 yards on 19 carries. A safety until this summer, Draughn's impressive play in practice earned him the bulk of the carries despite the fact that Greg Little started the game at running back.
The three guys the Irish defense will see in the backfield is Draughn (206 yards 2 TDs), Little (223 yards, 3 TDs), and Ryan Houston (77 yards, TD). All three are sophomores.
The North Carolina coaching staff tweaked the offensive line for the Huskies game, and for one game at least, it looked like it worked. They moved center Aaron Stahl to left guard, and promoted Lowell Dyer to starting center.
The Tar Heels lost starting quarterback T.J. Yates to an ankle injury two weeks ago in the loss to Virginia Tech, and he will be out for another four weeks. Sexton has since won the job over Mike Paulus.
Sexton (20-of-35, 359 yards, 3 TDs, INT) has helped lead his team to wins over Miami and Connecticut the last two weeks, but if the Irish can get pressure on the red-shirt junior and force quick and bad decisions, that could be their key for victory.
Miscellaneous: North Carolina is 27-of-65 (42 percent) on third down this season. They're losing the time-of-possession battle, 26:32 to 33:28. The Tar Heels have been good in the red zone, scoring on 15-of-20 opportunities, including 11 touchdowns. Two weeks ago against Miami, Brandon Tate broke the NCAA record for combined kick and punt-return yardage. He currently ranks third nationally in all-purpose yards at 194.6 per game. The Heels have been rotating two kickers, but Jay Wooten has the big leg, and is 4-of-6 with a long of 43. He had the distance but missed on one from 52 yards this season.
Threat(s):North Carolina leads the nation with 12 interceptions, and they have a deep rotation along the defensive line.
The Tar Heels had just 11 interceptions all of last season. But this fall with a defensive line that is deep and can get pressure without blitzing, North Carolina can drop seven in zone coverage and break on balls in the air. They don't blitz a lot.
Safety Trimane Goddard is tied for the lead nationally with four interceptions. Linebacker Mark Paschal has two picks, and his 41 tackles ranks first on the team with fellow linebacker Quan Sturdivant.
Eight different players have an interception including defensive tackle Marvin Austin, a former blue-chipper who returned his 23 yards for a touchdown against Connecticut.
Austin is part of a deep defensive line that rotates 10 to 11 players. Guys to keep an eye on are E.J. Wilson, Cam Thomas, Al Mullins, Robert Quinn, Tydreke Powell and Darrius Massenburg. These guys aren't stat fillers, but they're fresh bodies that play relentlessly while in the game.
In Kendrick Burney, Jordan Hembry and Charles Brown, North Carolina has three corners they trust.
North Carolina only has three seniors listed on the defensive two deep, with two starting. This defense is going to be good for years down the road.
Achilles Heal(s):Overall consistency.
With a young defense, North Carolina tends to make mental mistakes that costs them. The unit hasn't played complete games, and the Irish will look to catch them during one of its lapses.
Miscellaneous: Teams are 28-of-79 (35 percent) on third down against the Tar Heels. Opponents are just 1-of-5 on fourth down. North Carolina ranks 12th nationally in turnover margin. Linebacker Bruce Carter blocked three punts in the win over Connecticut. He blocked a punt the week before against Miami. Punter Terrence Brown is averaging 40.3 yards per boot with a long of 53 yards. He has downed the opponent inside their own 20-yard line nine times.
Game Notes: This is the 18th-ever meeting between Notre Dame and North Carolina. The Irish lead the series with a 16-1 record. The Vegas line has North Carolina opening as 4.5-point favorites. Charlie Weis' record against North Carolina is 1-0. Butch Davis's record against Notre Dame is 0-0.
Prediction: North Carolina 21, Notre Dame 17.
Unless the Irish can move the football on the ground, they will struggle in this game. The Tar Heels zone will force a couple mistakes, and Tate and Nicks will be the difference as playmakers in this game.
Game Forecast: North Carolina Week
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