That is what makes Saturday's game one of the more exciting games on Notre Dame's schedule thus far. It should be a rocking house in Chapel Hill, and the Irish better show up prepared to play or they'll lose on Saturday.
This is going to be the key match-up in the game I believe, and Irish fans will likely get a better understanding of just how much progress Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen has made in his reading of coverages. Clausen certainly has been impressive this season, but this game, and the success of Notre Dame's offense, will likely depend on if Clausen is making the right reads in coverage on Saturday, and that he protect the football and not turn the ball over.
I expect Carolina to play a fairly soft zone. I expect them to force the Irish to put together multiple 10 plus play drives to beat them. That will mean the Tar Heels will rush very few people, and then drop up to eight men in coverage. The Irish receivers and tight ends will have to find the soft spots in the zones, and Clausen will have to make the right reads to be successful.
If Carolina plays such a defense, the running game will be important for the Irish on Saturday. If Notre Dame can have some success early running the football, that should open up the offense and force Carolina out of their game plan a bit.
The most important factor in this game is turnovers. The Irish have protected the football very well the past two games, and they'll need to do that again on Saturday to have any chance of winning.
The ND defense has been a steady constant throughout the season. They'll bend. They'll give up yards. They'll keep you in the game long enough to win it, but they're not good enough to win games.
The Tar Heels are somewhat similar to the Irish on offense in that they make a lot of big plays, but they're not a unit that has had a lot of success driving the ball 80 yards on 10-play drives.
I'd guess the Irish game plan will be simple. They'll need to try to limit how much Carolina wide receiver Brandon Tate can hurt them in the game, and then they'll make junior quarterback Cameron Sexton beat them through the air.
I expect Notre Dame to serve up a healthy diet of blitzes for Sexton, and it will be interesting to see how he handles the pressure.
However, the real battle here will be the North Carolina running game versus the Irish defense. If Carolina can run the football well on Notre Dame, that would open up a lot of opportunities for their offense. The Tar Heels haven't been a great running team thus far (120 yards per game), but they have run the football better in recent games, and the Irish must do a good job of stopping the run early for them to slow down the Carolina offense.
Three things will likely be the difference between winning and losing in this game—attitude, turnovers and special teams.
The Irish will be dead in the water if they don't show up with the proper mindset on Saturday. Carolina will be sky high for this game. It's not often Notre Dame goes to Chapel Hill to play the Tar Heels. Respect is on the line. A great season is on the line. I'm certain North Carolina will be ready to play. Will the Irish? It's sad we continue to have to ask this question, but we do.
Turnovers really could be the difference in this game. Carolina has done an excellent job taking the ball away, especially in the passing game. Clausen has been masterful in recent games throwing and protecting the football. However, he usually has the one or two throws a game where you're left your scratching your head. He won't get away with those poor decisions in this game. This will be a game where Clausen has to play very well to win. He can't get frustrated taking the 6-yard play.
Special teams could play a big factor in this game as well. The Irish simply have no field goal kicker they can count on, and I expect them to be in a lot of field goal situations—not a good sign.
Carolina also has been explosive in their return game. Notre Dame has been stout in kick return defense, but they also haven't faced many good return units thus far this season.
I'm also concerned about punting. Eric Maust has done a nice job thus far in punting, but it seems the punting operation takes a little longer than it should. Carolina will certainly notice that on film and try to take advantage of it.
Mike Frank Prediction: I'm just not sure the Irish are ready for the big-time yet. I think they'll play fairly well on Saturday, but I fear a costly turnover, or poor execution in one area of special teams will be the difference in this game. Which team will make the critical error? I do think the Irish have the better quarterback, and that should count for something.
North Carolina : 24 Notre Dame: 21