SOUTH BEND — Looking to build on its first win of the season last Saturday over California, Notre Dame (1-2) hits the road for the second time this season to face legendary head coach Mack Brown and the 3-0 North Carolina Tar Heels.
So far this season, UNC played two tight contests against Sun Belt opponents in Appalachian State (2-1) and Georgia State (0-4), winning both contests by a combined nine points after manhandling FCS-level Florida A&M in its season opener.
The Fighting Irish and Tar Heels have a dominated the head-to-head between the two schools, as Notre Dame has won 20 of the previous 22 encounters.
Notre Dame currently has a four-game winning streak in the series, with the last loss coming in Chapel Hill back in 2008.
This Saturday’s game is slated for a 3:30 p.m. kickoff on ABC.
“I have the utmost respect for Coach Brown and his program,” Notre Dame head coach Freeman said. “I’ve gone against him as a player a few times and then last year was my first time going up against him as a coach. I’ve always respected the way his teams have played, and I know this North Carolina team will be no different.”
CONTAINING UNC’S OFFENSE
In recent years, UNC has shown in ability to put up points at will.
Last season, the Tar Heels offense — led by quarterback Sam Howell — came into Notre Dame Stadium and scored 34 points behind 564 yards of total offense.
So far this season, under the direction of redshirt freshman quarterback Drew Maye, UNC is averaging 51 points and 547 yards per game through three contests, which ranks fifth in the NCAA.
“After last year, I know we’re going to face a really good offense,” Freeman said. “They put up a lot of yards and a lot of points against us a year ago. They’re a talented offense. They have a veteran offensive line group, and their quarterback is playing really, really good football right now. I know he’s a young guy, but he’s playing as good as anybody in the country. We have our work cut out for us.
“They are going to try to take advantage of what you give them defensively, and they are going to try to go at different tempos, and they are going to make you get lined up fast. That was something last year we weren’t able to stop, so we have to make sure we’re prepared and come up with a good plan to limit what they do offensively.”
UNC’s offense has been balanced so far this season, averaging 237 yards per game on the ground and 310 yards per game through the air.
In the backfield, the Tar Heels feature a number of players that have earned touches. Their top threat at running back through three games, though, has been Omarion Hampton.
The freshman has rushed for 235 yards and five touchdowns on 38 carries early on in 2022.
At the wide receiver position, Kobe Paysour has been the team’s top pass-catcher with 14 grabs for 172 yards and two touchdowns through three games.
However, UNC’s most-prolific wideout in Josh Downs is expected to be back Saturday after missing the last two games with a knee injury.
A year ago against the Irish, Downs caught 10 passes for 142 yards.
“I don’t know that you can completely shut down a guy like Josh Downs,” Freeman said. “He’s a really good football player. I don’t love hearing a stat line of 10-plus catches and a 100-plus yards. That’s too much. We can’t let Josh Downs get his. We have to find ways to limit his catches and what he does after the catch. That’s what’s most dangerous about Josh Downs is his ability to turn a three-yard gain into a 20-yard gain. That’s going to be a huge challenge for us.”
IRISH KEEPING UP OFFENSIVELY
UNC’s offense will face its toughest test yet this season against a veteran Notre Dame defense, but Notre Dame’s offense will have to be efficient regardless Saturday if the Irish hope to escape Chapel Hill with their second win of the year.
Under the leadership of quarterback Drew Pyne, the offense sputtered early against Cal, struggling through four-straight three-and-outs to begin the game.
A rhythm eventually emerged during the second half, which allowed for Pyne and the offense to outscore the Golden Bears, 17-7, in the third and fourth quarters to help secure the win.
Against a high-powered offense to begin the campaign against Ohio State, the Irish slowed the game down offensively in an effort to limit possessions for the Buckeyes offense.
The strategy worked for a majority of the contest, and perhaps a similar game plan may be in store for this Saturday against UNC.
Regardless, ND will likely have to score a good amount of points to win this weekend. A solid running game, as well as playing to Pyne’s strengths in the passing game, would go a long way in consistently pushing the ball down the field against an abysmal Tar Heels defense that’s currently ranked just 123rd in total defense (468.3 yards allowed per game).
“The game plan against Ohio State was obviously specific to Ohio State,” Freeman said. “We’ll look at (UNC) both offensively and defensively. We know they have an explosive offense, and we obviously don’t want to get into a shootout, and I don’t think anyone in our program wants to do that either. … Offensively, we have to be able to control the ball, but also we’ll have to score some points. I don’t expect it to be a 10-7 game at the end of the third quarter like it was against Ohio State. This is going to be a game where we’re going to have to score some points and then limit them on the defensive side of the ball.”
Evan Lepak can be reached at [email protected] or 574-533-2151, ext. 240326. Follow him on Twitter @EvanMPLepak.