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UNC vs Notre Dame football battle of weaknesses: Analysis


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North Carolinas Giovanni Biggers (27) celebrates with teammate Cedric Gray (33), after Grays interception in the third quarter on Saturday, September 3, 2022 at Kidd Brewer Stadium in Boone, N.C.

rwillett@newsobserver.com

If Saturday’s game between North Carolina and Notre Dame comes down to a battle of strengths, then the Tar Heels offense and Fighting Irish defense will be what decides it. But what if it turns out to be more about their weaknesses?

Notre Dame (1-2) has been pretty anemic offensively in three games, which was understood in its season-opening 21-10 loss at No. 3 Ohio State. But what has followed in a 26-21 loss to Marshall and 24-17 win over California has raised eyebrows in South Bend. The Irish average just 300 yards in total offense per game (114th of 131 nationally).

North Carolina’s defense hasn’t proven it can consistently stop teams. The Tar Heels (3-0) squandered a 41-21 lead and allowed 40 points in the fourth quarter of their 63-61 win at Appalachian State. They coughed up a 21-3 lead against Georgia State before winning 35-28.

North Carolina assistant head coach for defense Gene Chizik doesn’t expect an overly complex game plan from Notre Dame’s offense when they enter Kenan Stadium on Saturday. He believes the Irish haven’t changed from their philosophy of running the ball behind a big offensive line.

“I’m thinking they’re going to run the football and they’re going to put the pressure on the offensive line to win the game right, both in protection and to try to take over the line of scrimmage and run with those tailbacks,” Chizik said.

But not even that has been much of a success. Notre Dame’s leading rusher Audric Estime averages just 43.3 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry. There just haven’t been many playmakers for the Irish at their skill positions.

Carolina, however, has created a number of playmakers for its opponents this season. The Heels have allowed 15 passes and five runs for 20 or more yards.

It’s tough to predict which unit will have the better performance on Saturday, so here’s a look at the key matchups when UNC’s defense squares off against Notre Dame’s offense:

Notre Dame QB Drew Pyne vs his first road start

Notre Dame starting quarterback Tyler Buchner suffered a season-ending shoulder injury late in the Irish’s loss to Marshall. So it’s Drew Pyne, a third-year sophomore, who is thrust into his second start, and his first on the road.

Pyne’s previous career highlight was replacing starter Jack Coan in the second half against Cincinnati last season and throwing for 143 yards and a touchdown. It’s actually still his career best.

“Obviously when you get thrown into a starting role in the conditions that he was put in, it takes some getting used to,” Chizik said. “So as far as us preparing for him, I think Tommy Reese, the offensive coordinator, does a really, really good job of giving him things that give him a chance to succeed.”

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Notre Dame quarterback Drew Pyne (10) throws against California during the first half of an NCAA college football game in South Bend, Ind., Saturday, Sept. 17, 2022. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) Michael Conroy AP

Pyne started off slow last week against California, completing just 4-of-9 attempts for 27 yards in the first quarter. But the remaining three quarters he was 13-of-14 for 123 yards and two touchdowns.

“He’s a passionate dude and sometimes that can be almost your biggest challenge,” Notre Dame coach Marcus Freeman said. “As you look at the start of the game, I think maybe sometimes he’s so excited, so anxious that he was making throws a little bit lower than he usually does, or maybe a little bit higher than he usually does just because of the game.”

Chizik noted as Pyne gained confidence in the second half he showed poise setting up in the pocket to throw and was not “jittery.”

Carolina will try to make him uncomfortable, but it will likely come from schemes it’s already shown. Chizik said they haven’t held anything back in their previous three games.

“You don’t want to ever do too much and that’s where we’re trying to find a good balance on what’s too much with our guys in terms of letting them execute,” Chizik said. “So we would like to do some more. We do have more. But that is based on whether or not we think we can execute that at a high level. And as you guys have seen, we’ve just been very inconsistent at that.”

UNC secondary vs Notre Dame passing game

No chance Notre Dame keeps the same offensive game plan against Carolina that it had against Cal. Running back Chris Tyree led the team with five catches for 44 yards. Estime was next with three catches for 43 yards.

Pyne threw 82 percent of his pass attempts either behind the line of scrimmage or between 0-9 yards, according to Pro Football Focus. (He’s just 1-for-5 in pass attempts of 10 yards or more.) He was following a game plan designed to be lateral against Cal. But Freeman said they’re going to have to score more against the Heels.

“We’re gonna have to throw some balls downfield,” Freeman said. “We’re not going to get away with running 5-yard routes and RPOs (run-pass option) and running the ball the entire game. We know that. There’s a belief from our coaching staff that we can and we will execute that.”

Tight end Michael Mayer, who is a NFL prospect, leads the Irish with 15 receptions and two touchdowns. Receiver Lorenzo Styles leads the team with 152 receiving yards. They are the only two players with more than 100 yards receiving. (Compare that to Carolina, which has six players with at least 100 receiving yards.)

“I definitely think they’re gonna try to see (Styles) and (Mayer) down the pipe a lot, down the seams,” UNC safety Gio Biggers said. “(Styles) has got a lot of speed and (Mayer) is obviously like a sure target for any quarterback.”

Carolina has had its problems in the secondary, allowing Georgia State five pass plays of more than 15 yards — including a 49-yard touchdown. Chizik said last week in practice communication was a big point of emphasis. Biggers added that they were also focused on improving their pre-snap reads so everyone is operating with the correct assignments.

What helped Florida A&M, App State and Georgia State throw off Carolina was motion shifts and different alignments. Biggers is actually relieved to be playing Notre Dame because he doesn’t anticipate any trickery.

“This is no disrespect to any other teams, but some of the teams we played the first few weeks, they give you a lot of different stuff like motion, shifts and different alignments that would try to really throw you off,” Biggers said. “They have to do something because most times they can’t just line up and beat the guy that we have on our (defensive) line or our linebackers. So just all the motions and shifts, just cleaning that type of stuff up, I think that’s kind of what’s giving us trouble.”

The Irish are capable of just lining up and beating the Heels if they’re able to establish the run. Carolina will be keying on that because it doesn’t want Pyne to be able to effectively use play action passes.

UNC defensive line vs Notre Dame offensive line

Two seasons ago when Notre Dame won 31-17 in Chapel Hill, UNC coach Mack Brown lamented how much stronger the Irish were on both the offensive and defensive lines and how it made a difference in the game.

Regardless of how the Irish have struggled offensively, one thing UNC nose tackle Ray Vohasek expects to be consistent is their offensive line.

“They’ve produced multiple first-round picks in the last 5-10 years, I consider it like O-line U,” Vohasek said. “They’ve produced great o-linemen every year. This is my third year playing them in a row, they’re always a big, physical group and they play as one and their technique is great. They’re some of the best technicians I’ve played, so it’s gonna be a good game. It’ll be a good challenge for us upfront.”

The Irish returned four starters on the offensive line from the group that helped them churn out 293 rushing yards in their win over UNC last season. Freeman said they are just starting to get the continuity upfront that they expect.

Starting center Zeke Correll, a fourth-year junior, and sophomore right tackle Blake Fisher, are full-time starters for the first time in their careers. Sophomore left tackle Joe Alt is a converted tight end who started eight games on the line last season. Left guard Jarrett Patterson, who along with right guard Josh Lugg, are both seniors and the leaders of the group.

“You’re starting to see some consistency out of that group,” Freeman said. “The fundamentals, the execution, the techniques they’re playing with are improving. They have a long way to go. They really do. They’re extremely talented, but they’re still young. I know it’s Week 3. But they’re really starting to become cohesive and execute the way that we want.”

Notre Dame has only allowed one sack and its quarterbacks have only been pressured on 15 snaps, according to PFF. But Freeman says they’ve had teachable moments “left and right.” The Irish are averaging just 3.3 yards per rush and 117.7 rushing yards per game, which ranks 102nd among Football Bowl Subdivision schools.

Vohasek pointed out that in 2020 when the Heels played them, Notre Dame had an experienced offensive line that was “basically seniors across the board.” But now he believes the Heels “match them from a physicality standpoint.”

“They want to win the line of scrimmage and that’s how Notre Dame wins games,” Vohasek said. “So I think we’ve done a good job and I think we’re gonna find out on Saturday how much progress we’ve made.”

This story was originally published September 21, 2022 8:10 AM.

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C.L. Brown covers the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer. Brown brings more than two decades of reporting experience including stints as the beat writer on Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stay at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he earned an APSE award, he’s had stops at ESPN.com, The Athletic and even tried his hand at running his own website, clbrownhoops.com.



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