by John Vannie
For the second consecutive home game, Notre Dame will host a team they have not played in a very long time. I was a freshman under the Golden Dome the last time the Tar Heels visited the Irish and lost 16-0, so it was only a few years after leather helmets and the single wing had become extinct.
The Tar Heels have beaten only Furman this season in a 45-42 shootout, and their 1-7 record has cost Coach John Bunting his job effective at the end of the season. After this announcement was made last week, North Carolina went on to play its best game of the year in a 24-17 loss to 7-1 Wake Forest. This indicates that the players have plenty of pride and are still working hard for the coaching staff.
Bunting was a defensive player for the Tar Heels in 1971, and his return to Notre Dame Stadium as head coach is bittersweet. “I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time. This is a special trip for us. It’s just disappointing we don’t have the record we’d like to have going in to the game”, he said earlier this week.
North Carolina features a rare two quarterback system on offense. Cam Sexton and Joe Dailey share the duties under center. Both are capable passers although neither is a significant running threat. Dailey’s numbers are slightly better in terms of accuracy, but both have combined for only a 50% completion rate and 15 total interceptions against a meager six touchdowns. The Heels average a mere 15 points per game and have surrendered over 32.
The three top receivers are Jesse Holley, Hakeem Nicks and Brooks Foster, each of whom has over 20 receptions. The biggest offensive threat for the Tar Heels is senior tailback Ronnie McGill, who is solidly built at 5’11’ and 220 pounds. McGill leads the team in rushing with a four yard average and is backed up by junior Barrington Edwards, who closely resembles McGill in stature.
North Carolina’s offensive line is led by senior left tackle Brian Chacos and guard Charlston Gray. The right side is somewhat unsettled, which could be good news for Victor Abiamiri. The Heels may have to double team Notre Dame’s sack leader, which should open up opportunities for other Irish defenders.
Defensively, North Carolina’s line is anchored by 300 pound tackle Shelton Bynum and end Brian Rackley, both of whom are seniors. Right end Hilee Taylor leads the team in sacks with three.
Larry Edwards was the team’s best linebacker and leading tackler before suffering a season-ending injury. Durrell Mapp has played well on the weak side but the other positions have been manned by committee.
Safeties are plentiful in that North Carolina has three quality players in overall leader Kareen Taylor, D.J. Walker and Cooter Arnold. Amazingly, the Tar Heels have only one interception this season, which was recorded by Taylor against Clemson.
Meanwhile, Notre Dame is coming off a confidence building win against Navy and appear to be on their way to a 10-1 record prior to the season finale in Los Angeles. Brady Quinn has settled into to a comfortable rhythm and his already stellar receiving corps has been bolstered by the emergence of David Grimes.
Darius Walker leads the Irish ground game, but fans are still not entirely satisfied with the play by the offensive line and are looking forward to additional carries by freshman James Aldridge. Since the Tar Heels have given up 205 rushing yards per game along with 27 touchdowns, Notre Dame will likely go right at them.
The Heels should not pose a significant threat to the Irish defense. McGill is their best player, but he should not have much room to run against Notre Dame’s front seven. The quarterbacks and receivers are average at best, so there is little chance the visitors will be able to match the host’s firepower and stay in the game. Although Bunting will deliver the best North Carolina can offer, the Irish are unlikely to keep them in the game by making unforced errors and playing without passion.
One area in which North Carolina does play well is in special teams. Their kick and punt coverage teams are above average, while place kicker Connor Barth has nailed every field goal and PAT he has attempted this season. The biggest challenge for Notre Dame in this phase of the game is to generate real improvement in its disappointing punt and kickoff return performance.
Although North Carolina will give maximum effort, they do not have the horsepower to pressure Notre Dame into a sub-par performance. Matchups favor the Irish across the board, and there should be ample opportunity for Coach Weis to go to his bench. The Tar Heels will stay in the game only as long as the Irish permit, which probably won’t be longer than twenty minutes.
NOTRE DAME 40 NORTH CAROLINA 10