by John Vannie
(NDNation.com) - Notre Dame takes to the road for only the second time this season by paying a rare visit to the University of North Carolina. The Tar Heels are also 4-1 under second year coach Butch Davis, and are coming off impressive victories over Miami of Florida and Connecticut, which propelled them into a No. 22 national ranking.
The Irish are hoping for a better showing than the last time they ventured out of South Bend, a 23-7 drubbing at the hands of Michigan State.
The matchup is attractive in that both teams are significantly improved from last season. Carolina was 4-8 in the first year of Davis’ rebuilding program, and Notre Dame’s struggles in 2007 do not need to be discussed again in this column. The winner will achieve Cinderella status and become a player in the New Year’s Day bowl sweepstakes. The loser will have to reset such expectations and wait until next year.
The Tar Heels have been an aggressive and opportunistic team this season. Although outgained by UConn last week, they blocked three punts and recorded three interceptions to deflate the Huskies. Although its offensive and defensive statistics are largely mediocre, Carolina leads the nation in pass interceptions and its special teams feature very productive return men. In short, they force opponents into mistakes and capitalize on them.
Notre Dame will attempt to continue its error-free ways of the previous two weeks. If the Irish do not suffer a turnover and commit a special teams gaffe, they have the talent to win. The game represents an important barometer for how much the team has progressed since mid-September. A victory would go a long way to silence critics who claim that the main reason for Notre Dame’s early success this season is a very forgiving schedule.
Notre Dame’s Offense against North Carolina’s Defense
The key once again for the Irish is the running game. Although Jimmy Clausen has been sensational of late, he cannot afford to put the ball in the air 40 times against the Tar Heel secondary. Safety Trimane Goddard is the chief ball hawk with four interceptions, but the entire back-seven plays excellent team defense against the pass. The rest of the secondary is quick but small, and Irish receivers such as Michael Floyd could have a productive day.
Each of the three starting linebackers has at least one interception, and all are fast and athletic. Mark Paschal and Quan Sturdivant lead the team in tackles with 41 each. Carolina is also big up front with Marvin Austin and Cam Thomas representing 630 pounds at tackle and pass rusher E.J. Wilson coming off the edge.
Surprisingly, the group has only six sacks on the season and has allowed nearly 150 rushing yards per game. Another quality defensive lineman, Darrius Massenburg, is coming off a knee injury and may be ready to play this week.
Notre Dame is fortunate in that tackle Mike Turkovich and guard Eric Olson are ready to play despite suffering leg injuries against Stanford. Armando Allen has also been banged up, but he is expected to carry the load at tailback. His emergence as a threat in the passing game last week has made the Irish even more difficult to defend.
If Clausen is not supported by a running game as was the case against Michigan State, the likelihood that the offense will misfire grows exponentially. The best way to combat the aggressive Tar Heel defense is to keep them off balance. This will enable the Irish to put enough points on the board to win, but the pressure is squarely on the offense in this game.
Notre Dame’s defense and special teams have not demonstrated the ability to help out in the scoring column since the Michigan game, which looks more and more like a rare exception.
North Carolina’s Offense against Notre Dame’s Defense
Since the season-ending injury to quarterback T.J. Yates, the Tar Heels have rallied behind Cam Sexton and Mike Paulus. Sexton led the comeback win over Miami with 242 passing yards, but he is not good enough to carry this offense on a consistent basis.
He was helped last week when sophomore tailback Shaun Draughn turned in a breakthrough performance with 109 yards on 19 carries. This was the best showing to date by the Carolina ground game, which ranks 89th nationally.
Draughn will be counted upon to take some of the load this week, and the Irish run defense needs to shore up after a poor outing against Stanford. Ryan Houston and Greg Little will also see action at tailback for the Tar Heels, and Notre Dame fans will remember that Little reneged on a verbal commitment to Coach Charlie Weis on National Signing Day in 2007.
The offensive line has undergone change in the past week as two new starters have taken over at center and left guard. The moves were undoubtedly made to jump start the running game and improve the protection for Sexton. Last week’s results indicate that it worked.
The strength of the Tar Heel attack is the wide receiver corps led by big play man Brandon Tate and leading pass catcher Hakeem Nicks. Brooks Foster is a capable third receiver, but the Tar Heels rarely use the tight end and backs in the passing game. Richard Quinn has only two receptions this season and Little has the lone reception by the tailbacks.
If North Carolina can run the ball, Sexton will probably have time to find Tate and Nicks for big plays. Tate is particularly dangerous on reverses and direct snaps out of the backfield in addition to the deep pass. If his game-breaking ability can be held in check, the Tar Heel offense is generally not capable of marching up and down the field. The Irish must force Sexton to beat them by shutting down the run and removing Tate from the equation to the maximum extent possible.
Carolina has used two kickers this season in an attempt to get some consistency on field goals, but its difficulties pale in comparison to Notre Dame’s woes. The biggest concern for the Irish should be the punt blocking ability of Carolina, and last week’s fake punt by Harrison Smith was meant to send a message of caution to the Tar Heels.
The return game is another opportunity for Tate to run free in space, and he has made good use of these chances to date. The senior averages nearly 28 yards per kick return and an incredible 25 yards while bringing back punts. Irish gunners Mike Anello and David Bruton will be hard pressed to keep Tate in first gear.
Both sides want to run the ball, if for slightly different reasons. Carolina needs to protect an inexperienced quarterback and take advantage of the vulnerable Irish front seven. Notre Dame needs to keep the Tar Heel defense from teeing off on Clausen and making game-changing plays. The winner will be the team that is most successful in this endeavor.
The Irish will gain yards through the air, but they will not convert scoring chances into points without a balanced red zone attack. North Carolina is far more effective against the pass than Stanford or Purdue, and a one-dimensional attack won’t get the job done.
Here are a few key questions that will determine the outcome:
Which team will run the ball most effectively?
Will Clausen find holes in the aggressive Tar Heel secondary?
Will the Irish be able to hold Tate in check?
Which kicker will help his team win?
Can the Irish coverage teams stop the Carolina return game?
Will Notre Dame get through another contest without a turnover?
Can the Irish force a mediocre Tar Heel offense to score all their points?
The Irish have the horses to win this game, but the running game is not productive enough to believe they will come in and dominate. Carolina will create a hostile environment and bring enough pressure on Clausen to keep Notre Dame from reaching the 30-point mark. Meanwhile, the much maligned Irish defense should be able to limit the hosts in similar fashion.
The Tar Heels are a team that does not look impressive on paper, but they have fewer weaknesses than the Irish and can score by several different means. In a tight ballgame where a special teams play, turnover or field goal could decide the outcome, the odds are that North Carolina will produce what is needed.
North Carolina 24 Notre Dame 21