Can Tar Heels mark amarquee victory?
High drama, exceptional recruiting and dynamic offense have marked Mack Brown’s coaching sequel at North Carolina. What the Tar Heels lack since his return last season is a true signature victory.
Oh, they opened 2019 with conquests of South Carolina and Miami.
But neither was ranked or, as we eventually learned, very good.
Last year also included a gutting 21-20 loss to No. 1 Clemson— more on that trend in a moment— and this season’s highlight is a 48-21 domination of N.C. State, a game in which UNC was favored by two touchdowns.
Black Friday at Kenan Stadium will be different. Hunting their first top-10 win since 2004, the Tar Heels are 4½-point underdogs to undefeated Notre Dame, No. 2 in the College Football Playoff’s initial rankings Tuesday.
By any definition, this would be a marquee moment.
“Everybody knows where Notre Dame is,” Brown said. “Nobody knows where we are. We’re up and we’re down. Can we run the ball against a team that’s giving up 85 yards [rushing per game]? Can we be in balance? Can we move the ball against the No. 5 defense [statistically] in the country? Can we stop them at all, because we’ve been so inconsistent on [defense]?”
Fascinating questions all as North Carolina,
19th in the CFP rankings, attempts to break an 11-game losing streak against top-10 opponents that dates to a 2004 upset of No. 4Miami. The Tar Heels’ big whistle from 1988-97, Brown was elsewhere for the first 10 of those setbacks, either coaching at Texas or working for ESPN, but his UNC team was a late 2-point conversion away from stunning Clemson last season at Kenan.
North Carolina went
7-6 last year and is 6-2 this season, and remarkably, each of those defeats was by 7 points or fewer. The combined margin in the eight defeats was 32 points.
“Obviously there are no moral victories,” Tar Heels linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel said, “but looking back and looking back on film, we went toe-totoe with the No. 1 team in the country, and I feel like that spread throughout the locker room, and everybody got a lot more confidence coming after that game even though we didn’t win.”
With teams averaging a combined 59.4 points, scoring in ACC games this season is on a record pace, and UNC is a primary reason. The Tar Heels and Western Michigan are the only teams in the country scoring at least 40 points per game and yielding more than 30.
Both teams have scored 40-plus points in three UNC games, including a 44-41 loss at Virginia, and the Tar Heels are actually 2-0 when allowing 45 points or more. They defeated Virginia Tech 56-45 and, in their most recent outing, Wake Forest 59-53.
North Carolina is the lone Bowl Subdivision team averaging at least
325 yards passing and 225 yards rushing, but good
luck hanging 50 points on Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish lead the ACC in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense, and safety Kyle Hamilton’s range and versatility are reminiscent of former Clemson linebacker Isaiah Simmons, the 2019 ACC defensive player of the year.
“He can make plays all over the field,” Brown said of Hamilton, “and when we saw Simmons last year it was just a wow effect. It didn’t matter where he was, didn’t matter if you ran to him or away from him, he was going to be around and make plays. … I think they’re very comparable. …
“In a year where we’re saying a lot of people miss defense …[and that] the offenses are ahead of the defenses, well, Notre Dame didn’t get that memo.”
Quarterback Ian Book, running back Kyren Williams and one of college football’s premier interior lines provide the Fighting Irish (8-0, 7-0 ACC) a quality offense, too — witness their 47-40 double-overtime victory over Clemson earlier this month. But they aren’t as prolific as the Tar Heels.
Sam Howell has thrown multiple touchdown passes in 19 of his 21 college starts and leads the ACC in pass efficiency and yardage. Javonte Williams paces the conference in rushing and touchdowns, while Dyami Brown leads in receiving yards and touchdown catches. Oh, and like Williams, Michael Carter averages more than 100 yards rushing per game.
Few, if any, offenses are
Notre Dame coach
Brian Kelly, destined to join 2018 inductee Brown in the College Football
Hall of Fame, said Howell “throws the best deep ball in the league. That’s really the difference with Sam.…
“So if I was to center around two things without giving away too much of the game plan, it’s you gotta be really good at the line of scrimmage and be effective at stopping base run plays, and then you can’t give up big chunk plays.”
Virginia is the only opponent to limit North Carolina to fewer than 160 rushing yards. But while the Tar Heels managing only 93 rushing yards against the Cavaliers, Howell threw for 443 yards and four touchdowns.
If anyone else can make UNC one-dimensional, it’s Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish allowed Clemson 34 rushing yards on 33 carries.
Notre Dame and North Carolina have three common opponents in Duke, Florida State and Boston College, with FSU the most jarring contrast. The Irish beat the 2-6 Seminoles handily, while the Tar Heels lost by 3.
FSU’s 31-28 upset of then-No. 4 UNC is among the season’s most baffling results, one that should give anyone attempting to handicap Friday’s clash pause.
“They’re an established national program,” Brown said, “and we’re not there yet. That’s where we want to be. … We wanted to be relevant again. This [game] is relevant.”