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  • Irish Book Trip to North Carolina

    by John Vannie

    Notre Dame travels to the University of North Carolina on Saturday to battle the Tar Heels, but the Irish may be without the services of a key player – quarterback Brandon Wimbush. A cloak of mystery and disinformation has surrounded Wimbush’s foot injury and status for this game, but prudence suggests that he sit against the 1-4 Tar Heels and take advantage of an upcoming bye week before returning to action on October 21 against USC. The ABC television network will broadcast the game nationally beginning at 3:30 PM Eastern time.

    Leadership of the Irish offense would fall to Ian Book, who has performed competently in mop-up duties to date. Book does not possess the arm strength or the dynamic running skills of Wimbush, but he makes quick decisions, throws the ball accurately, and plays within his abilities. Notre Dame’s top three running backs are also operating at less than 100%, but all should be available for action on Saturday.

    Meanwhile, Larry Fedora’s North Carolina team has wilted under an avalanche of its own injuries, where eight starters were unable to go in last week’s loss to Georgia Tech. Fedora did not make excuses, but rather pointed to missed tackles on defense and poor execution by his offense as the reasons for his team’s latest defeat.

    A potential distraction for the Tar Heels looms on Friday as the NCAA will release its final report, including penalties, after a six-year investigation into academic fraud among North Carolina student athletes. The penalties may be severe and will certainly have an impact on the current Tar Heel players and coaches. In the short term, however, the scandal could provide an unusual level of motivation for the embattled hosts in this game. UPDATE: Apparently this announcement has been further delayed, although the specter of sanctions remains a cloud over the UNC campus.

    NOTRE DAME’S OFFENSE vs. NORTH CAROLINA’S DEFENSE

    Wimbush The Irish will not be afraid to let Book throw the ball on Saturday, but a more conservative approach is reasonable given the Tar Heels have not been stellar against the run. Opponents have recorded 221 yards per game and an even five yards per carry.

    North Carolina’s eight man defensive line rotation features only one senior, end Dajuan Drennon, who plays behind talented sophomore Malik Carney. This tandem accounts for the majority of the quarterback pressures, but these rushers will have to battle the strong left side of the Irish front. Injuries have also taken a toll at linebacker. Jonathan Smith, a sophomore, was thrust into the middle last month when junior starter Andre Smith (no relation) went down for the year. He is flanked by Cole Holcomb, the team’s leading tackler, and Cayson Collins, who has a pair of sacks to his credit.

    Despite what is sure to be a run-heavy approach, Notre Dame’s passing game needs work and Book should get around 20 attempts. Wide receivers Chase Claypool, Chris Finke and Miles Boykin have shown improvement recently and Kevin Stepherson is trying to get reacclimated after a suspension to start the season. Although Book has slightly above average ability to scramble, he is not likely to run the ball by design given the status of Wimbush. Realistically, the Irish will be in trouble if Book goes down.

    The Tar Heel secondary has avoided the injury bug to date and is led by a pair of seniors, cornerback M.J. Stewart and safety Donnie Miles. Stewart has two sacks and five pass break-ups to his credit, and is the best athlete in the group. Still, the tall Irish receivers should have an advantage downfield if Book can deliver the ball.

    NORTH CAROLINA’S OFFENSE vs. NOTRE DAME’S DEFENSE

    UNC When star quarterback Mitch Trubisky moved on to the NFL in April, Fedora brought in graduate transfer Brandon Harris from LSU to take over the position. Harris has yet to separate himself from junior Chazz Surratt, who has taken more than half the snaps to date and has put up much better numbers. Surratt is a better running threat and has fewer interceptions in his 128 throws than Harris has in just 42.

    The problem with the passing game has been at wide receiver, where injuries have decimated the lineup. Only Jordan Cunningham remains from the trio that was expected to start back in August, and he is an incoming transfer from Vanderbilt. Freshman Roscoe Johnson and sophomore deep threat Anthony Ratliff-Williams have taken advantage of the opportunity for early playing time, but the team has been unable to establish a rhythm in Fedora’s spread offense. Tight end Brandon Fritts remains a potential weapon, particularly in short range and the red zone.

    At running back, incumbent Elijah Hood elected to leave early for the NFL draft and is now an Oakland raider. The workload in Chapel Hill has fallen to a pair of relatively inexperienced backs, Jordon Brown and Michael Carter. The pair has combined for 500 yards in five games. Both are similar in their relatively small size and ability. Brown is the better pass receiver.

    Notre Dame should be successful against this offense if they win the battle up front. The Tar Heels’ best lineman is left tackle Bentley Spain. The rest are mainly veterans that include Florida transfer Cam Dillard at center, but Spain is the only player with star power. The overall offense has talent and can put points on the board, but injuries, penalties and poor execution, particularly on third down, have held them back.

    SPECIAL TEAMS

    Notre Dame kicker Justin Yoon took a slight step back last week when he missed one of two field goals, but that by itself is not yet cause for alarm. Punter Tyler Newsome has not recently booted the ball as far as he did earlier this season, but there have been no returns against the coverage unit during the past two games. Conversely, the Irish return game remains anemic, which makes me wonder why Brian Kelly and Brian Polian were caught on kiss-cam last week.

    For the Tar Heels, Freeman Jones has hit just 50% of his field goal attempts, the longest of which is 39 yards. Punter Tom Sheldon has a strong leg and boasts an average over 45 yards with very little return yardage. North Carolina’s return teams are respectable, with Ratliff-Williams handling kicks and Stewart fielding punts. Each group has a statistical edge over the Irish.

    SUMMARY

    UNC The Tar Heels are strongest up front on defense, but the back seven is a bit shaky in terms of physicality and tackling ability. The offense lacks a go to receiver on third down and has an unfavorable time of possession metric, so a ball control strategy by Notre Dame is likely to be successful. North Carolina will take its shots downfield and go after Nick Watkins, whose shaky performance last week was the only flaw in a strong Irish defensive performance.

    At various points during the day, a few four-yard runs could turn into 40-yard romps for the Irish if Josh Adams and Dexter Williams are fully healthy. The main objective should be to get out to an early lead and control the game so that Book does not become burdened with the task of winning it through the air.

    Here’s a few questions that will shed light on the outcome:

    Will Notre Dame’s running backs be healthy enough to shred the Tar Heel defense?

    Can Surrat or Harris convert on third down?

    Will the Carolina front four be able to pressure Book into mistakes?

    Which offense will achieve the greatest success in the red zone?

    Can the Irish secondary tighten up and prevent long completions?

    Will Wimbush suffer a similar fate (job loss) as Malik Zaire and Wally Pipp?

    Can Brian Kelly 2.0 remain calm and collected with a first time starter at quarterback?

    PREDICTION

    Assuming Wimbush is sidelined as expected, Notre Dame will have to put in the better part of a full day’s work to subdue the Tar Heels. The hosts have nothing to lose at this point in a difficult season and will view this game as an opportunity to salvage some respect and give the media something to talk about besides the NCAA sanctions that are almost assuredly on the horizon. Book should be competent as the field general, but the North Carolina defense won’t need a dedicated spy on him and will challenge the Irish by loading up against the run.

    NOTRE DAME 30 NORTH CAROLINA 17

    25 Responses to “Irish Book Trip to North Carolina”

    1. irishhawk50 says:

      Readers here know that I am not a big fan of Wimbush, but it would be foolish to risk him against a lesser opponent like North Carolina besides Book needs the game experience. Book still may be needed if USC closes down the run game and Wimbush still can’t pass effectively. Stay tuned.

    2. JVan,

      I’m putting the Irish on “upset alert”.. Tar Heels have nothing to lose and this really is
      their bowl game..

      My prediction with Book at QB — North Carolina 26
      Notre Dame 24

      My prediction: with Wimbush — Notre Dame 39
      North Carolina 24

      We need the mobility of Wimbush to put this game out of reach.. Book not quite ready
      for prime time yet.. IMHO..

      • This is the most absurd prediction that I’ve ever seen on this board. This UNC holding ND’s offense to 24 points with me at Quarterback would be equally foolish and I was in marching band.

        • Depends on your instrument, Albert. If you played trumpet, falto, or percussion, I’m with Jake. If you played saxophone, trombone, or bass, ND would most certainly triumph.

      • Is a game against a 1-4 team that has lost 2/3rds of their starters even considered prime time? ND rolls with or without Wimbush.

        Yes, this is UNC’s bowl game, but that won’t mean anything when they are on the receiving end of a Josh Adams stiff arm.

        • Mike,

          When ND comes to town it’s always prime time… North Carolina will play inspired football
          and this will be no gimme..

          Look how tough a bad BC team played us for three quarters.. Miami OH had their way
          with Nick Watkins and the NC athletes will up to the challenge for this game…

      • Jake you worry too much, man. And I think you underestimate Book. And I think you overestimate our need for a QB that does much more than manage the game and avoid egregious mistakes.
        This is a different ND team than we have seen of late. They dominate and put games away. I expect the same tomorrow.

        • Alumni Dawg,

          NC has a much better level of athlete than Miami Oh.. We’ll know in about four hours!!

      • Kevin Welsh says:

        Nice call with Book starting. Did you really believe we’d give up 39 points to this bunch? I concur this was an absurd prediction. We’ve been putting outmatched opponents away all year

    3. Ted Kazmar says:

      I believe resting Wimbush is a foolish strategy. Wimbush needs as many reps as he can get before the difficult part of the schedule starts. If Wimbush doesn’t get better passing the ball, ND could lose the last six games of the season. Now if your strategy is to see if Book can jump start the offense with a better passing attack to get ready for the last six games, then start Book.

    4. AlumniDawg97 says:

      John thank you as always. You have painted a picture that this team is BC with a worse defense. If really that bad, I agree it makes sense to rest BW and let him take full advantage of the upcoming bye. Go Irish, run run run!

    5. With or without Wimbush there is no way the Irish should lose. But this game is the classic trap game. Without Wimbush the Irish should run Adams 25-30 times and pound the ball. Injury or not simply there is no excuse to lose this game. 31-20 Irish.

    6. Glenn Hane says:

      Irish 34- UNC 13- Irish pound the rock and Alize Mack scores his first Irish TD of the season. GO IRISH

    7. Terry Sweitzer says:

      Wimbush hasn’t been great throwing the ball but you can’t play him when he’s injured, even if it is a minor injury. A minor injury can turn into a major injury especially if he runs the ball 10-15 times. Wimbush needs to sit and get back to 100% for USC. A dual threat quarterback against that team is much more important. Book can handle the offense against UNC. We have one of the best offensive lines in the country, just pound the ball, and use all four running backs – 10 to 15 carries apiece.

      Don’t forget about our defense, we create turnovers and turn those into easy points. We get at least 2 turnovers this game. Defense has been great! No way this is an upset. Irish 38 UNC 13 GO IRISH

    8. IrishGreen says:

      I am not nearly as confident in this game as most on here. I actually see a nail bitter and not just because Wimbush is out although that doesn’t help. A road game against a seemingly talented but under-performing team always scares me. I could see Carolina get off to a good start and the pressure increase on Mr Book’s shoulders. Everyone knows we will try and pound the rock so I would imagine Carolina load up to stop it and force us to convert through the air. Hope I’m wrong—Really do…UNC 27-24

    9. This is not a trap game since ND has a bye coming up. And this isn’t a bowl game for UNC –
      there is no history between the teams. Tar Heels will care more about playing ACC team.

      With or without Wimbush the Irish should cruise but the bigger injury concern for our Irish
      is that of the RB’s

    10. Gmoney321 says:

      Even with the injuries to Wimbush and the running backs, North Carolina only scored 7 points against a Georgia Tech team that let Tennessee score 40+, the same Tennessee team that was blanked by Georgia in Knoxville. The Tar Heel defense gives up yards by the truck load. Don’t make the opponent bigger than they are. Notre Dame 42 UNC 17. If ND doesn’t cover the spread, then the thought of Temple, Boston College and Miami, Ohio being extremely weak will gain traction.

    11. goirish1988 says:

      Can you believe how far our beloved program has fallen over the years? There’s actually a debate about who will win a Notre Dame-North Carolina football game. Notre Dame was once a football powerhouse and North Carolina nothing but a basketball school. So sad. When will you demand more?

      • GoIrish I mean no disrespect. But have you actually enjoyed any of the ass-kickings these Irish have dispensed, or do you only yearn for bygone days?

        They are 2 points away from being undefeated and average over 300 yards on the ground a game. That’s a pretty good swing from last year. Give ’em a chance. Enjoy the game today if you can.

    12. I am surprised, usually the predictions ndnation commenters make are reasonable. But picking UNC to win this game? That is radio shock jock like material. I have been as critical of Kelly as anyone but considering the way our Irish have been playing picking UNC makes no sense and represents a disheartening level of pessimism.

      • Mike Coffey says:

        With a freshman QB making his first start on the road, I don’t think unease is completely out of the question.

    13. There’s no debate. ND wins by 4 touchdowns today. The only debate is why hasn’t the NCAA put Carolina on probation for bogus classes for basketball players. I thought that was coming out yesterday at noon.

    14. ND’s OC and offensive line suck haha.

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