Friday, October 10, 2008

Irish vs. Tarheels: Gut Check Time

The University of North Carolina is known for several things - a phenomenally successful basketball program, an impossibly stupid team name and women that look like this.
Sadly, for their fans, one thing the Tarheels have not been known for is great football success. In spite of fielding a team since the tail-end of the first Grover Cleveland administration, the Heels have nearly two hundred fewer program wins than the Irish (650 vs 826). In addition, the school has never won a football national championship, and the last major bowl in which they played was the 1950 Cotton Bowl where they lost to a very stout (probably) Rice Owls team.
Why do I bring this up? In spite of all the talk about "Notre Dame having to play on the road", they will be playing a team without a distinguished winning tradition in front of a crowd more accustomed to booing Mike Krzyzewski than cheering Butch Davis. In other words, this isn't like playing Ohio State in the "Big Horseshoe."
That said, UNC does have a good, young team this year; not dissimilar to the one fielded by Notre Dame. Also similar to the Irish, the Tar Heels are 4-1 to start the year after a disastrous 2007 campaign (UNC finished 4-8). As has been said on numerous occasions, this will no doubt be ND's toughest test to date.

The Tar Heels come into the game ranked 22nd in the country with wins over McNeese State, Rutgers, Miami (Fl) and UConn and a loss to Virginia Tech. While this is ND's first top-25 and second road opponent of the season, it is actually a fairly even match-up (if we are to believe the statistics). Here's how the teams compare:

Notre Dame UNC

106 Rushing Offense 91
34 Passing Offense 71
70 Total Offense 88
59 Rushing Defense 67
91 Passing Defense 58
85 Total Defense 57

All in all, pretty even. The area where UNC has managed to gain a significant advantage over their opponents is with turnovers, specifically interceptions. The Tar Heels lead the nation with 12 interceptions (ND is 26th with seven) and are 12th in turnover margin (ND is 20th). This has enabled them to overcome a relatively bad offense. While Notre Dame can hang its hat on being a proficient passing team (34th in the country), UNC is almost equally bad running (91st) and passing (71st). This should be a big benefit to the Irish defense which has struggled against the run, but (in spite of their ranking), has actually been decent against the pass. Moreover, while the Heels have two outstanding receivers in Hakeem Nicks and Brandon Tate, the man throwing to them (Cam Sexon) is a second-string quarterback with a 45% career pass completion percentage.

With such a closely matched contest, Notre Dame will need to continue to play in the disciplined manner they have in the last two games. That means they need to keep both the turnovers and penalties to an absolute minimum. They will also need to answer these, by now, familiar questions:

  1. Can Notre Dame run the ball? It's tempting to think they may not have to if the passing game is clicking, but in, what looks to be, a tight ball game, being able to burn time off the clock is huge. If the Irish can get a push from their linemen up front and allow the running backs to move the chains, they likely win. Watching the Stanford game again, there were actually some decent runs, but they were not done consistently. That has to change.
  2. Can Notre Dame reach the quarterback? Last week, against Stanford, Notre Dame's pass rush finally paid off with five sacks against the Cardinal. This week presents an opportunity for the Irish D to have some more success bringing down the QB. UNC is 67th in the country in sacks allowed with nine (Notre Dame is 25th with five). If the Irish can hurry and bring down Sexon, they keep him from getting the ball to either Nicks and Tate and give themselves a great chance.
  3. What happens if it comes down to a FG? We're a Catholic school, so prayer is definitely an option. In fact, at this point, I feel much more confident in the likelihood of divine intervention than Notre Dame converting on any, nevermind a crucial, field goal attempt.

This is absolutely going to be a tough game for the Irish to win. They are playing a very good opponent at home. That said, it is a team they match up well with and, if they can keep mistakes to a minimum and momentum to a maximum, they will likely leave Chapel Hill victorious.

UPDATE: It just dawned on me how similar this year's UNC game is to last year's against UCLA. Like last year, Notre Dame will be on the road as underdogs to face a 4-1 team being led by a back-up quarterback. Let's just hope the outcome is the same for the Irish.

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