The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Monday, Sept. 25, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

Preview: Three keys to a UNC upset victory against Notre Dame on Saturday

Spring Football Game
Junior running back D.J. Jones (26), redshirt freshman offensive lineman Carter Kulka (60), and sophomore wide receiver Landon Stevens (85) run onto the field for the Spring Game on Saturday, April 9, 2022.

Before the season started, North Carolina’s slated home contest against Notre Dame likely caught the eyes of many who saw UNC’s football schedule. 

The Fighting Irish were tabbed the No. 5 team in the country and hoped to make the program’s third-ever appearance in the College Football Playoff. But several issues, including a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Tyler Buchner, led to Notre Dame dropping two of its first three games.

Despite Notre Dame heading to Chapel Hill with a losing record, head coach Mack Brown understands the challenge the Fighting Irish present. 

“It’s the same old Notre Dame — they’re going to run the ball and be physical,” he said. “They’re not going to make many mistakes and they’re really strong on both lines of scrimmage.”

Here are three keys for North Carolina to defeat Notre Dame and enter conference play undefeated:

Establish the line of scrimmage

Against Georgia State, the Tar Heels struggled to get the run game going. 

In the first half, North Carolina managed just 41 rushing yards and struggled to open up holes within the Panthers’ front seven. With graduate offensive lineman Spencer Rolland returning from injury, UNC will look to reignite its ground attack. 

“This biggest area where I’d like to see improvement (on the offensive line) is in our first and second down execution in the run game,” Offensive Coordinator Phil Longo said. “That was our focus last week, and it’ll be our focus this week as well.”

However, UNC’s offensive line isn’t the only unit that’ll need to establish itself for the Tar Heels. On the defensive side, North Carolina’s front seven will have to sustain the Irish’s bruising run game.

In its last contest, 41 of Notre Dame's 64 total plays were runs, something UNC must withstand to minimize the Fighting Irish's offense. 

Finding offensive balance

When junior wide receiver Josh Downs suffered a sprained MCL in North Carolina’s season opener, some new faces were given opportunities to show their talent.

With these new roles came the rise of young receivers like Sophomore J.J. Jones and redshirt first-years Kobe Paysour and Gavin Blackwell. All three receivers stepped up their play — leading the Tar Heels to score a combined 98 points in the two games without their first team All-ACC wideout. 

But with Downs and senior Antoine Green being evaluated throughout the week — and signs pointing toward a potential return for both — Longo knows UNC’s offense could get even more explosive. 

“We want to be able to play a lot of people,” he said. “All this does is add more bullets to our gun and we have to try and still distribute the ball around like we have been doing. Having more weapons is a good problem.”

If Maye can continue his balanced passing style and spread his targets across all of North Carolina’s talented skill players, UNC’s offense could reach another level against the Fighting Irish. 

Put pressure on Pyne

After Buchner's injury against Marshall, junior Drew Pyne slotted into the lead role for Notre Dame.

In his first start, Pyne completed over 73 percent of his passes, but only tallied 150 yards through the air. Even more eye-opening, Pyne managed to engineer just three passing plays of over 15 yards — two of which came off checkdown reads.

With his limited experience, North Carolina will need to put the Irish's new signal caller under pressure. The Tar Heels run a basic front, and rarely deploy blitz packages, so UNC’s ability to get to the quarterback will start with the secondary maintaining coverage. 

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

“I really believe over the last four practices we’ve made a lot of strides (in the secondary),” Assistant Head Coach for Defense Gene Chizik said. “The communication has gotten better.”

If North Carolina’s corners can freeze Pyne during his initial reads, UNC’s defensive line has the depth and skillset to make the Irish uncomfortable. Combine that with a sold-out Kenan Stadium, and the Tar Heels could be on their way to securing their first 4-0 start since 1997.


@dthsports |