After a comfortable win at home against Miami of Ohio, Notre Dame is back on the road against a Power 5 team in North Carolina. The Irish are looking to get to 5-1 going in to the bye week. If they’re able to win today, Notre Dame will have already exceeded their 2016 win total.
However, the game against the Tar Heels could prove more difficult than the Irish would’ve guessed a week ago. On Sunday, rumors began to swirl about a foot injury to starting quarterback Brandon Wimbush. Over the course of the week it has come out that Wimbush has a grade 1 foot strain. Brian Kelly has said that Wimbush will be a game time decision. Most analysts expect that Wimbush will be rested and backup quarterback Ian Book will get the start. Despite a 1-4 record for North Carolina, a first start on the road is never an easy task. At the same time, if the Irish play up to their potential, this game should not be too difficult.
Notre Dame Offense vs. North Carolina Defense
Injuries are the major concern for the Notre Dame offense. Wimbush isn’t the only player not at 100%. Josh Adams, Dexter Williams, and Tony Jones all are banged up in some form or another. While all three should play, the running back injuries have forced Notre Dame to pull the redshirt from true freshman C.J. Holmes. The top 250 recruit could prove to add some excitement to the Irish offense.
If Ian Book does indeed start at quarterback, don’t expect the Irish to change their game plan too much. Yes, Book is much less of a running threat than Wimbush. However, in general, the Irish will still look to do most of their damage on the ground. In mop-up duty, Book has looked solid throwing the ball and running the offense. I would expect somewhere between 15-20 passes for Book today. If Wimbush ends up starting, I’d assume he would be used much less in the run game. Due to Wimbush’s reliance on his wheels, it would seem wise to use caution and give him two weeks of rest before USC.
North Carolina’s defense has been abysmal this season. The Tar Heels rank in the 100s in the nation in both pass and run defense. Not to mention, the defense is coming off a week where they were beat up by the Georgia Tech option. The one area where UNC could find success is with the pass rush. Dajuan Drennon and Malik Carney are both dangerous off the edge. For North Carolina to win this game, their defense would need to play its best game of the season by far. The Tar Heels have not allowed less than 27 points against a Power 5 opponent this season.
Edge: Notre Dame
North Carolina Offense vs. Notre Dame Defense
Any offense that loses the likes of Mitch Trubisky, Elijah Hood, and Ryan Switzer is going to need an adjustment period. (Side note: please save the Bears, Mitch!). Under Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels have been known for explosive offenses, but this unit seems to have hit a wall. There has been flip flopping between quarterbacks Brandon Harris and Chazz Surratt. It seems Surratt has established himself as the starter for the time being. Surratt has been solid, completing 63% of his passes for 5 TDs and just 2 INTs. The junior quarterback will be looking to Jordan Cunningham and Anthony Ratliff-Williams to help him out at receiver.
While the Tar Heels have been solid through the air, they have struggled on the ground. UNC ranks 82nd in the FBS in rushing yards per game at 142.4. Jordon Brown and Michael Carter are the two top backs and have combined for less than 500 yards on the season. This group should continue to struggle against a Notre Dame front that allows less than 4 yards per carry.
Notre Dame’s defense is certainly much improved from last season. Then again, that’s not a very high bar. While the Irish have yet to allow more than 20 points in a single game, they also have not gone out and dominated an opponent. If Ian Book does indeed start, the defense may be asked to step up a bit. One player who I’d like to see have a big time performance is Nyles Morgan. The senior has been steady all season, but Morgan has yet to put on the type of show you would’ve expected from him this year. Additionally, the secondary must perform better than last week against Miami.
Edge: Notre Dame
Notre Dame’s special teams performance left a bit to be desired last week. Justin Yoon and Tyler Newsome had off nights as did the return and coverage teams. I keep waiting for CJ Sanders to break a big return, but he has yet to do it, maybe this is the week?
UNC kicker Freeman Jones is just 3-for-6 on the season, though all of his misses have come from over 40 yards. Punter Tom Sheldon has been strong this year and should continue that today. Anthony Ratliff-Williams could provide some danger of his own as the kick returner.
From everything I’ve seen, heard, and read it seems as though Ian Book will be starting at quarterback today. I would not rule out Wimbush, as he did practice on Thursday and could be available. However, right now I would guess there’s about a 70% chance Book starts the game. In a first start on the road I don’t expect total smooth sailing. However, this UNC team has been decimated by injuries and just doesn’t have enough to stay with the Irish for four quarters. UNC may keep it a little closer than some would expect, but Notre Dame will still come away with a comfortable road win.
Notre Dame 31 North Carolina 20
Tailgate Song of the Week
RIP to one of the true legends of Rock ’n’ Roll, the great Tom Petty. To tie this song back to Notre Dame, this game could be Ian Book’s chance to “Learn to Fly”.