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Preview: UNC needs to get Sam Howell going to earn upset win over Notre Dame

Junior quarterback Sam Howell (7) carries the ball at the game against Miami on Oct. 16 at Kenan Stadium. UNC won 45-42.
Buy Photos Junior quarterback Sam Howell (7) carries the ball at the game against Miami on Oct. 16 at Kenan Stadium. UNC won 45-42.

Although they won’t be as bright as previously expected, the lights will still be on display in South Bend on Saturday night.

Once upon a time, when both teams were in the top 10 at the beginning of the season, the matchup between the North Carolina and Notre Dame football teams was supposed to be one of the major tests that dictated UNC’s college football playoff aspirations. 

Now, with three games against ranked opponents to finish out the schedule, the 4-3 Tar Heels will look for any win they can muster to simply help solidify a bowl berth.

Here are some factors UNC should prioritize to start the final gauntlet with a win.

Get Sam Howell going

When these teams played over Thanksgiving weekend last season, the Tar Heel offense got completely stuffed in the second half. 

After scoring a touchdown on its first two drives of the game, UNC would only score three more points the rest of the way, mostly because the aggressive Notre Dame defense completely shut down the run and held running backs Michael Carter and Javonte Williams to 90 yards on the ground.

With Carter and Williams no longer in the picture, graduate transfer running back Ty Chandler has been asked to fill in their footsteps, which has led to mixed results. If the Tar Heels want to pull off the upset, keeping the ball in junior quarterback Sam Howell’s hands as often as possible will be vital. 

Howell tossed for a modest 211 yards and one touchdown against the Fighting Irish last year, but he will need a much bigger performance to give his team a chance this time around. 

Although Howell has been productive in running the ball this season to the tune of 494 rushing yards, his passing numbers have dipped from a record-setting pace during his first two years on campus. Over the last two games, he’s thrown for only 357 yards — with an interception in both contests. 

He should be given a chance to improve those numbers on Saturday, as North Carolina is likely to deviate from establishing the run against the Fighting Irish’s solid run defense, which ranks 34th in the nation. 

Additionally, Notre Dame’s All-American safety Kyle Hamilton was recently ruled out for Saturday’s matchup, which should open up deep-ball opportunities for sophomore receiver Josh Downs, who is already nearing the 1000-yard mark and has scored a touchdown in every game thus far.

Lock in defensively

Just a game after allowing Wake Forest to score 53 points last season, UNC gave up two early touchdowns to Notre Dame, and the floodgates to another shootout seemed to open. But after co-defensive coordinator Jay Bateman made some adjustments, the usually shaky Tar Heel defense was surprisingly steady the rest of the way to keep the game within reach. 

The Fighting Irish are led offensively by quarterback Jack Coan, who has plenty of big-game experience dating back to his time at Wisconsin. He has been solid in his first year with the team, throwing for 1397 yards and 11 touchdowns. 

UNC’s defense features plenty of young faces, but some have already gotten experience playing on the grand stage in last year’s matchup. One of those players is sophomore cornerback Tony Grimes, who picked up his first career start against the Fighting Irish last season and held his own against elite competition. 

Although many teams have feasted on the Tar Heels’ inability to consistently stop the run, Notre Dame’s offense isn’t too predicated on moving the ball on the ground, as the Fighting Irish rank 115th in the nation with 107.7 rushing yards per game. 

Several younger players will be tasked with making sure this trend continues, as sophomores Myles Murphy, Kaimon Rucker and Cedric Gray are all expected to have a big role in the Tar Heels’ quest to earn a signature win.  

@hunternelson_1 

@DTHSports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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