3:30 PM EST, ABC – Line: Notre Dame -5, Over/Under: 67
Feeling bloated and sluggish after Thanksgiving, and refusing to brave the traffic and crowds of rabid shoppers on Black Friday? We’ve got the remedy, folks, as the No. 2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish face their final test before a potential date in the ACC Championship Game as they travel to Chapel Hill to battle the No. 19 North Carolina Tar Heels in a major showdown ripe with Playoff implications. The remaining schedule sets up quite nicely for Notre Dame (8-0, 7-0 in ACC), who after checking in at Second Overall in the opening College Football Playoff Rankings, face a favorable slate down the stretch; following today’s date with the Tar Heels, the Fighting Irish get Syracuse at home in South Bend before hitting the road at Wake Forest, with those teams owning a combined 5-11 record. Undefeated through eight games, Brian Kelly’s charges have passed test after test, even bringing then top-ranked Clemson’s regular season winning streak to end in thrilling fashion, though they clearly caught a break with Heisman frontrunner, Trevor Lawrence, missing the affair due to a positive COVID test. Clearly the CFP Committee didn’t value that victory any less without the Tigers’ prolific Quarterback, and now this team appears headed to their first trip to the Playoff since 2018, when they were ironically embarrassed by eventual National Champion, Clemson, 30-3 in the Semifinal from the Cotton Bowl.
So with all that said, given how COVID has rocked the College Football landscape, are the Fighting Irish any better equipped to progress through the Playoff than they were two years ago? By and large, Kelly has been nothing short of a success during his eleven years with the program, owning a 100-37 record (.730) with five ten-win campaigns, four of which have occurred over the last five years, highlighted by a trip to the BCS Championship Game back in 2013 and that aforementioned appearance in the Playoff. However, both affairs ended in ugly fashion, leaving the critics openly lamenting his ability to beat the truly elite programs. Well, unless anything truly surprising happens, if his side does in fact get into the Playoff then they’ll be sitting alongside the likes of Alabama, Ohio State, and Clemson, who comprise the true bluebloods of the sport, each of which having dealt the Irish some of the most embarrassing losses of the past decade. Well, for what it’s worth this is a much more experienced group then they were two years ago, particularly at Quarterback, where Ian Book (62.0%, 1,817 YDS, 8.4 Y/A, 11 TD, 1 INT, 148.6 RATE) must be relishing another shot at the Final Four. The Redshirt Senior has been in South Bend for a good minute, winning all but three of his thirty starts dating back to 2018, with the most glaring defeat being that humiliation against Clemson. On that day, Book struggled mightily in completing just 17-of-34 attempts for 160 yards and an interception, while suffering SIX sacks and countless more hits in what proved to be as lopsided a matchup that you’ll find in Semifinal. Nearly two years later and he would have his revenge, as he led Notre Dame to an epic 47-40 double overtime victory over Clemson; this time around he performed much better, throwing for 310 yards and a touchdown on 22-of-39 passing, while rushing for another sixty-seven yards on fourteen carries and most importantly committing ZERO turnovers. Unlike last season, this incarnation of the Irish has been the very definition of balanced, averaging a robust 462.1 total yards per game with 228.6 of that figure coming through the air and the other 233.5 on the ground. Efficiency is the key word when it comes to this unit, who rarely beat themselves, particularly when they’re showing the football down their opponent’s throat via the run. Last season, Kelly’s troops averaged 36.1 rushing attempts per game, but this year that number has risen to 45.1, with a host of contributors making plays out of the Backfield, chief among them Sophomore Tailback, Kyren Williams (137 CAR, 777 YDS, 5.7 Y/A, 10 TD), who has topped the 100-yard threshold on four occasions thus far, including 140 yards and three touchdowns in that aforementioned triumph over Clemson. However, he only saw nine carries before exiting last weekend’s 45-31 victory at Boston College (more on that in a bit), with his status for today’s contest currently up in the air dealing with an undisclosed injury. Fortunately, there is depth at the position, with both Chris Tyree (59 CAR, 334 YDS, 5.7 Y/A, 2 TD) and C’Bo Flemister (53 CAR, 293 YDS, 5.5 Y/A, 5 TD) averaging over 5.0 yards per carry, while Book continues to flex his legs as a dual threat, rushing for 364 yards and six touchdowns thus far. Defensively, they’ve all but snuffed out the run, relegating the opposition to a scant 85.1 yards on 2.9 carries, which is a major improvement over last year’s showing of 152.5 yards on 3.9 yards per carry. The Irish have held five straight opponents below 100 yards rushing, with Clemson mustering a meager thirty-four yards on thirty-three attempts. This group has done a tremendous job of getting penetration and creating negative plays, with a total of sixty-six tackles for loss and twenty-one sacks, ten of which belonging to their triumvirate in the trenches, Daelin Hayes (15 TKL, 6.0 TFL, 3.0 SK, 2 FF, 1 FR), Adetokunbo Ogundeji (13 TKL, 3.5 TFL, 3.5 SK), Isaiah Foskey (12 TKL, 4 TFL, 3.5 SK, 1 PD). If we judge these elite teams by how they play in the trenches, then Notre Dame acquitted themselves well in that meeting with the Tigers, amassing a pair of sacks and ten tackles for loss.
When we last saw Notre Dame, they managed to successfully avoid their proverbial trap game that was their trip to Boston College, outlasting the Eagles in a 45-31 affair. Kelly’s charges got off to a slow start in this one, sitting on just three points until Book found fifth-year Senior Receiver, Ben Skowronek (14 CAR, 239 YDS, 17.1 Y/R, 5 TD), for a 10-yard score to square things away 10-10 before the end of the First Quarter. From there, the visitors put their foot on the gas, with back-to-back touchdown drives to take a 24-13 lead which eventually ballooned to 38-16 midway through the third period. The hosts would make things interesting late, but would never truly stop the Irish, who continued to trade scores with their opponent until the final whistle. Apart from losing three fumbles, the visitors found little resistance in moving the football with frightening ease, amassing a whopping 557 total yards on twenty-nine first downs, rushing for 274 yards and three scores on forty-nine carries, while Book was uber-efficient passing for 283 yards and three touchdowns on 20-of-27 passing. Even with the aforementioned Williams limping off the field, the run game was dominant, with Tyree (17 CAR, 74 YDS), Book (10 CAR, 85 YDS, 1 TD), and Flemister (10 CAR, 53 YDS, 2 TD), proving more than capable of keeping the ball rolling, while Skowronek hauled in all three of his Quarterback’s touchdowns. The offensive fireworks were indeed impressive, and judging by the quality of their next opponent in that regard, they will be necessary as well…
Meanwhile, though they were expected to contend within the ACC this season, 2020 has still been a success thus far for North Carolina (6-2, 6-2 in ACC), who have been presented with an opportunity to pull off a major upset and add a signature victory to their campaign. Needless to say, the Tar Heels are well ahead of schedule in their second year under Mack Brown, who himself is in his second tenure with the program. Out of coaching for six years, the 69-year old returned to Chapel Hill with designs of rebuilding a flailing outfit that gave him his first major job over thirty years ago. Back in 1988, Brown slowly turned around a team that went a miserable 2-20 in his first two seasons to a respectable 54-18 over his final six years in charge, a period in which they competed in five Bowls, finishing as high as sixth in the polls in 1997. This of course earned him the job at Texas, where he would eventually go on to lead the Longhorns to the 2005 BCS National Championship, the crowning achievement of his storied career. With Carolina slumping to a 5-18 record under the stewardship of Larry Fedora, Brown returned from retirement to resurrect the program, going 7-6 in 2019, and with one more victory can match last year’s win total.
Though he left Texas under the criticism of being out of touch with modern football, it’s clear that you can in fact teach an old dog new tricks, for Brown did not spend his retirement sitting on his hands. Upon watching North Carolina operate, it’s clear that they’re one of the more high-powered teams in the country on the offensive side of the football, racing downfield at a breakneck pace whether it be through the air or on the ground. In 2020, the Tar Heels have averaged a prolific 43.1 points per game (10th Overall) on 563.4 total yards, including 329.9 yards through the air and another 233.5 on the ground, all the while churning out a healthy 7.7 yards per play. At the controls is True Sophomore Quarterback, Sam Howell (67.7%, 2,631 YDS, 10.6 Y/A, 23 TD, 6 INT, 182.6 RATE), who has followed up a sensational Freshman campaign in which he threw for a UNC Frosh record 3,641 yards and thirty-eight touchdowns, with 2,631 yards and twenty-three touchdowns through eight games. In his second year in the system, Howell has exhibited better command of the Offense, and with the supporting cast around full of speed and athleticism, he’s been even deadlier than he was before, netting a whopping 10.6 yards per attempt. Furthermore, he’s made better use of his own athleticism, rushing for another three scores. Supporting him in the Backfield is arguably the most explosive tandems of Tailbacks in the country, with Javonte Williams (120 CAR, 868 YDS, 7.2 Y/A, 15 TD) and Michael Carter (116 CAR, 807 YDS, 7.0 Y/A, 4 TD), proving equally adept at rushing through holes in the trenches as they are beating helpless Linebackers on passing routes; the dynamic duo have combined for 2,151 yards from scrimmage and twenty-four total touchdowns, averaging an electrifying 7.8 yards per touch. The Receiving Corps has seen plenty of weapons too, with Dazz Newsome (34 REC, 455 YDS, 13.4 Y/R, 4 TD) and Dyami Brown (45 REC, 829 YDS, 18.4 Y/R, 8 TD), frequently making plays downfield, with the latter serving as the big play threat reeling in 18.4 yards per catch and a team-high eight touchdown receptions. Five different players have averaged at least 14.0 yards per catch, as this Offense prioritizes getting them into space where they can make plays with their speed and quickness. This really should make for a mouthwatering matchup against the Irish and their sting Defense, for Brown’s charges have been on an absolute tear over the last six games, topping 500 yards of Offense in each game, including a season-high 742 in last weekend’s 59-53 shootout versus Wake Forest (more on this game in a bit). Unfortunately, that score would indicate why this team has plummeted from Fifth Overall in the Polls, for their Defense simply hasn’t been up to par in 2020. It’s clear that Brown still has plenty of recruiting left before this unit can be considered with being even remotely close to their cohorts on the opposite side of the football; North Carolina has been torched for 30.8 points per game (69th Overall) on 413.6 total yards, including 261.8 yards against the pass and another 151.9 versus the run. In their two losses they yielded over 400 yards of Offense, including over 200 yards on the ground, and in that aforementioned meeting with the Demon Deacons they were burned for a grand total of 606 yards on NINETY-ONE plays. Simply put, if the Tar Heels hope to pull off the upset against the Irish, they’re going to have to find a way to slow down their punishing ground game, which as we’ve covered earlier, has been the driving force of their success.
When we last saw North Carolina, they were forced to outscore a middling Wake Forest side in a 59-53 track meet that featured a ridiculous 112 points, 1,348 total yards, sixty first downs, and fifteen touchdowns between the two schools. There were eight leads changes in this one, folks, as the Tar Heels suddenly found themselves trailing 45-24 midway through the Third Quarter, after the Deacons outscored them 31-7 over the span of a roughly twenty-two minutes between the second and third stanzas. However, that’s when the hosts woke up, running off an unbelievable THIRTY-FIVE unanswered points before the visitors finally stopped the bleeding though it was ultimately too little too late. Howell balled out when they needed him to, completing 32-of-45 passes for 550 yards, six touchdowns and an interception, while rushing for another twenty-one yards and a score on seven carries. The aforementioned duo of Williams and Carter combined for 243 yards from scrimmage and a pair of touchdowns, while Newsome and Brown exploded for 352 yards and four touchdowns on eighteen catches. At the end of the day, this is precisely what makes this team such a threat, for they can score in bunches and they can do so quickly, for they managed to put together that onslaught in little over a single quarter of play. They will find ways to stress Notre Dame’s Defense today, and if they can refrain from making mistakes, which they have thus far only committing nine turnovers this year, then they should be able to trade punches with them.