Notre Dame @ North Carolina

For the third season in a row with a 2020 scheduling change to accommodate the reworked pandemic slate, Notre Dame and North Carolina will play a football game. This is the second in Chapel Hill sandwiched around last year’s tilt in South Bend.

The series is an incredibly one-sided 20-2 in Notre Dame’s favor, including 10 in a row in the late ’40s, early ’50s and 10 of the last 11 since 1962.

But the 2020-21 games were very competitive, although not necessarily reflected by the point differentials. In 2020 – a 31-17 Notre Dame victory – the game was tied at the end of the first and second quarters. The Irish scored touchdowns in each of the final two quarters while Clark Lea’s defense pitched a shutout in the second half, allowing just 14 first downs and 298 total yards.

Last season, the Irish led most of the first half, fell behind early in the third quarter, and scored 24 of the next 31 points, including a scintillating 91-yard reversal-of-field touchdown run by Kyren Williams. The Irish then had to sweat it out as quarterback Sam Howell led the 29-first down, 584-yard onslaught with Howell carrying tacklers around Notre Dame Stadium for 101 yards on the ground. Notre Dame prevailed, 44-34.

Despite Notre Dame’s back-to-back double-digit victories the past two seasons, the gap is not that significant. North Carolina has a whole bunch of skill-position talent, an exciting young quarterback and an ultra-veteran coaching staff that has seen and done it all.

Head coach Mack Brown has won a national title and played for another back in the BCS days. Assistant head coach/defensive coordinator Gene Chizik won a national title as head coach at Auburn in 2010. Phil Longo is the architect of one of the most lethal offenses in the country.

Notre Dame counters with a first-year head coach in his fifth game, a 30-year-old coordinator in his third season at the offensive helm, and a veteran defensive coordinator with head-coaching and NFL experience.

If coaching history matters in Saturday’s matchup in Chapel Hill, Tar Heels advantage. But Notre Dame enters this game with a significantly better defense, particularly with the strong performance last Saturday against Cal in which the Irish shut down the running game – other than scrambling quarterback Jack Plummer – and limited the Golden Bears’ passing attack.

And yet today’s college game isn’t as dependent upon the old “defense wins championships” adage. Defense remains a great weapon, but offense can trump the team with the better defense, especially when a quarterback like Drake Maye takes the game by storm, as he has in his first three collegiate starts.

Maye is tied for the national lead in touchdown passes (11), eighth in quarterback rating (190.1), sixth in completion percentage (74.2), and 11th in yards per game (310).

Yes, that damage has been inflicted upon FCS program Florida A&M and Group of 5s Appalachian State and Georgia State. To North Carolina’s credit, they challenged themselves by playing at Appalachian State and at Georgia State.

But the film doesn’t lie. Maye’s game will transfer against better competition. The key for the Irish is to give him looks and pressure him into decisions he hasn’t had to make versus lesser competition.

If there is a criticism of Maye, it is that he can be too confident and may try to force something. He’ll run and take an unnecessary big hit. On the flip side, Drew Pyne’s aggressiveness retreated in his first start in a Notre Dame uniform against California.

Maye has an abundance of weapons around him, including the return of slot receiver Josh Downs (knee), who had an incredible 101 receptions on 144 targets last season (70.1 percent). Downs is one of several talented Tar Heel wideouts. Three tight ends – Kamari Morales, Bryson Nesbit and John Copenhaver – have combined for 21 catches, a 17.0-yard average and five touchdowns. The Tar Heels are seventh in the country in third-down conversions.

The most sobering stat of all is that the Tar Heels are averaging 51.3 points per game while the Irish have scored 55 points in three games.

The Irish need another defensive performance like the one two seasons ago when North Carolina’s juggernaut offense was held to 17 points (none in the second half), 14 first downs and 298 yards of total offense.

And so the Irish must find a way to temper the flames shooting out of North Carolina’s offensive tailpipe by possessing the football, running the football, moving the chains through the air on third down in particular, and taking advantage of the Tar Heels’ bottom- dwelling numbers in the most defensive statistical categories.

That means that Pyne will have to curb the jitters that plagued him early in the Cal game. If he can pick up where he left off – he completed his last 14 of 15 passes for 131 yards – and Tommy Rees can devise ways to stretch the field more than last week, Notre Dame can score in the 30s, which likely is the only workable number to out-score North Carolina.

Notre Dame can run against this North Carolina front, particularly the defensive ends. When interior defensive linemen Ray Vohasek (No. 51) and Myles Murphy (No. 8) are replaced by backups Kevin Hester (No. 98) and Jahvaree Ritzie (No. 5), there are inroads available to the Irish. Notre Dame will also want to attack cornerback Storm Duck (No. 3). Tight end Michael Mayer should be a matchup problem for the Tar Heels.

The Irish can do this, but they’ll need to diffuse much of what North Carolina does well and take their game on both sides of the football to a level it has yet to reach in 2022.

Pointspread: North Carolina by 1½; over-under 55½
Priester’s Prediction: North Carolina 31, Notre Dame 27
Season Record: 2-1-0 Straight-up; 2-1 vs. points; 1-2 over-under

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