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And In That Corner … The injured Tar Heels of North Carolina

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Notre Dame’s trip to North Carolina may never have been the most-daunting road trip on the 2017 schedule (that’s likely to be Nov. 11 at Miami), but few expected the Tar Heels to be slogging along at 1-4 come the first week of October. That is the case, nonetheless. To figure out how and why North Carolina has struggled so much thus far, let’s pepper Andrew Carter of The Charlotte Observer with some questions …

DF: First off, thanks for taking the time to help Irish fans know what to expect this weekend. How long have you been covering the Tar Heels?
AC: Since November of 2011. This is my sixth full football season.

From this distance, two storylines seem to sum up North Carolina’s year. One of those actually points to last year — all that was lost from the offensive side of the ball. Obviously, quarterback Mitch Trubisky went No. 2 in the NFL Draft, but much more talent went out the door, as well. By my count, four of last year’s top-five receivers departed and all four of the Tar Heels’ top-four rushers left (if including Trubisky). Just to toss out a few more names Notre Dame fans will remember, Ryan Switzer led those receivers and Elijah Hood played a key role in that rushing game.

Is that exodus to fault for North Carolina struggling to score the last two weeks, with 17 points against Duke and seven at Georgia Tech? What underlying issues are handicapping the Tar Heel attack?
There are two primary reasons why the Tar Heel offense is struggling. The first is all the departures you mentioned. North Carolina lost its starting quarterback, its top three receivers, its top three rushers and two of its best offensive linemen from last season. Several of those players were among the best in school history at their positions: Trubisky at quarterback, Switzer at receiver, Hood at running back, and the list goes on. Secondly, the Tar Heels have been decimated by injuries.

Even if North Carolina remained healthy, its offense would have faced a difficult rebuilding year. But, the Tar Heels have not been healthy. They have been anything but healthy. The offensive line has been a bit of a patchwork mess during the first month of the season. The best lineman there, senior left tackle Bentley Spain, missed all of one game with a hand injury and most of another, and he’s probably still not at full strength. Several others have been banged up, as well.

Then-junior receiver Austin Proehl caught 43 passes for 597 yards and three touchdowns last season, but a left arm/shoulder injury ended his 2017 after only four games with 16 catches, 270 yards and one touchdown. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Injuries at receiver have become comically absurd (as much as injuries can be). North Carolina lost its top three receivers off last year’s team … and then it lost three of its best receivers during the first four games this season. Among them are senior Austin Proehl, the only returning receiver who played a large role last year, and junior Thomas Jackson, the only other returning receiver with double-digit catches last season. And then sophomore Rontavius Groves, arguably the Tar Heels’ most-talented young receiver, suffered a season-ending knee injury in his first collegiate game, after recovering from … a different knee injury.

It’s not difficult to surmise the hows and whys of North Carolina’s failures on offense. It lost a ton of production from last season, and since then it has endured hard-to-believe misfortune with injuries. With the injuries up front and at receiver, it has been difficult for the Tar Heels to establish any kind of rhythm.

Despite those issues, sophomore quarterback Chazz Surratt has put together some decent numbers, throwing for 988 yards and five touchdowns with a completion rate of 63.3 percent, seemingly ending LSU transfer Brandon Harris’ career. Is that latter assumption a safe one?
I think that’s probably fair. I’d be surprised if Brandon Harris spent any significant time at quarterback the rest of the season, barring a Surratt injury (which, the way things are going on that front …).

North Carolina sophomore quarterback Chazz Surratt has rushed for four touchdowns to complement his five scores through the air. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)

North Carolina coach Larry Fedora won’t come out and say this — not yet, anyway — but at some point it becomes common sense to start planning for the future and do what’s best for down the road as opposed to what might lead to relatively minimal improvement this season. The Tar Heels have probably already arrived at that point. I do think Harris could help North Carolina in the short term, but how much would that really be worth? An extra win, maybe?

The Tar Heels are not going to win their division this season. An upper-tier bowl game is already out of the question. Harris will be gone after this season, while Surratt will have three more years of eligibility remaining. It would not make much sense to play Harris, while Surratt could use this time as an opportunity to develop and gain some valuable experience.

With that in mind, what kind of future does Surratt project to have in Fedora’s system?
A pretty good one, assuming he improves his arm strength. Surratt is plenty mobile and he seems pretty durable, but the offense is a bit limited with him right now because he doesn’t have the ability to stretch a defense vertically with his arm, not that he necessarily has healthy receivers to target downfield, anyway.

North Carolina has kept its playbook pretty basic with Surratt, which is understandable given he’s seeing his first playing time. Another offseason or two in the weight room adding strength could do wonders for Surratt, because all the other skills and intangibles are there.

The other storyline would be the Tar Heels’ struggling defense. Perhaps I am being overly harsh, but then again, North Carolina has given up 35.5 points per game against four FBS-level opponents. Is it really that, uhhh, bad?
The defense has actually improved the past two weeks, though the numbers don’t bear it out. Against Duke, the defense kept the Tar Heels in it and gave North Carolina a chance until Surratt threw an interception that was returned for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. Another interception in the third quarter turned the game Saturday during the Tar Heels’ loss at Georgia Tech.

Player attrition and injuries have affected the defense, as well. It lost its best lineman from last season, Naz Jones, now with the Seattle Seahawks. One of the team’s best cornerbacks, Des Lawrence, was a senior.

This season, already, North Carolina has lost starting middle linebacker junior Andre Smith for the season, and one of its most talented defensive lineman, junior Jalen Dalton, hasn’t played in three weeks.

So no, the defense hasn’t been especially good, but it’s kind of a less dramatic version of the offense in terms of the injury situation. Exacerbating the defensive issues, when the Tar Heels’ offense is bad, it puts a huge strain on the defense — even more so than what a “normal” team could expect, given how abnormally quickly North Carolina attempts to operate its offense.

The Tar Heels use an up-tempo spread. When it’s going three-and-out several times per game, the defense has no time to rest. Eventually that adds up, and in the fourth quarters of all four North Carolina losses, the defense was exhausted. That’s the defense’s fault, in part, for not getting off the field on third down earlier in the game (and that’s been a huge problem), but the offensive woes certainly play a role, too.

Again, removing the statistics from the Tar Heels’ 53-23 victory over FCS-level Old Dominion, opponents have had equal success rushing and passing against North Carolina, averaging 251.75 rushing yards per game and 252.75 passing yards per game. Presuming the Irish rely on the run as common sense and recent history would indicate, do the Tar Heels have the personnel to sell out to stop Josh Adams & Co.?
Probably not, honestly. I’d expect this game to follow a similar script as North Carolina’s losses against Louisville and Duke. I think the Tar Heels can keep it close for a while, maybe for a half, even three quarters. Then their inability to sustain offensive success — combined with the lack of depth and inability to generate stops on third down on defense — will take its toll. If the fourth quarter does not completely belong to Notre Dame, it would be a surprise, based on everything UNC has shown to this point.

It will likely take more heroic efforts like this for the Tar Heels to challenge Notre Dame this weekend. Plus, this is just a cool photo. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Presuming the spread closes around 16 or 17 in Notre Dame’s favor (or even 13 or 14 if Irish junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush is ruled out), can North Carolina realistically keep it that close? I imply a blowout largely because of the Notre Dame rush offense vs. the Tar Heels rush defense. Perhaps I am very much off-base.
I don’t think you’re off-base.

I appreciate the agreement. While we’re at it, how about a score prediction?
I think something in the 40ish to 20ish range sounds about right.

On Brandon Wimbush’s (in)accuracy and Notre Dame’s plans to adjust to it

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Football fans and reporters alike may not enjoy admitting it, but they often do not know exactly what a specific play’s intentions were. What looks like an overthrow may actually be a misrun route. What appears to be a hopeless halfback dive in the first quarter may in fact be setting up a play-action pass just after halftime. Unless in the film room discussing each snap with the players and coaches, that reality is only guessed at, often from a short-sighted viewpoint.

In the third quarter of Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH) on Saturday, the purpose to the passing plays was clear: Get junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush some work. The blowout allowed for some leeway.

“It was really delving into some of the playbook for Brandon and some across-the-board reads that we hadn’t really gotten to,” Irish coach Brian Kelly said afterward. “… We got into some of that in the third quarter. Again, it’s an apprenticeship, right? We’re still learning as we go, but he’s making some really good progress.”

Using that prism — one of expecting good reads followed by accurate throws, not necessarily looking for runs for first downs or setting up plays to deploy later on — how do Wimbush’s three third quarter pass attempts look?

The first appears to be thrown as a version of getting rid of the ball with a slight chance of a positive result. Wimbush goes through his reads, considering a throw to senior tight end Nic Weishar (No. 82) along the sideline, but the coverage on Weishar is too tight. If Wimbush had made that choice, the defender looks to be in prime position to jump the throw, a mistake the first-year starter has made a few times this season.

Instead, Wimbush moves to his left to get a better view of that side of the field, then throwing somewhat across his body toward fifth-year receiver Cam Smith. There may be occasions where that is a dangerous throw, but in this instance, Wimbush’s arm strength allows him to still get the pass out in front of Smith, though it falls incomplete.

Wimbush holds the second attempt much too long. Furthermore, he seems to focus on Weishar for the entire play, a thinking strengthened by the subsequent aerial replay. If Wimbush makes the decision he eventually comes to but a few seconds earlier, he could have — should have — had a touchdown. Again, the delayed pass comes so close to being a success only because of Wimbush’s natural arm strength.

The final pass, the simplest one, may be the greatest illustration of Wimbush’s struggles thus far this season. In the previous two moments, his arm strength compensated for his gradual decision-making. At this point in his career, Wimbush taking an extra moment to process a coverage is understandable. His failing to complete a screen pass in stride is not. There is no read. There is no decision to make. It is a throw needing to lead sophomore running back Deon McIntosh forward.

It brings to mind a route to the flat run by junior tight end Alizé Mack in the first quarter. Wimbush could not connect with Mack despite it being a throw with no complications.

These misses cost more than the obvious yards.

Consider North Carolina State’s linebacker Airius Moore or senior defensive end Kentavious Street. Through five games, Moore has two quarterback pressures and three pass breakups including one interception. Street has 3.5 tackles for loss including one sack, another quarterback pressure and two pass breakups.

At the end of October, there will be frequent situations where either Moore or Street has the assignment of at least shading Mack for a few yards off the line of scrimmage. As athletic as Mack is, both are capable of covering him on routes, perhaps with some safety consideration on deep routes.

If the Wolfpack do not respect Wimbush’s ability to complete what should be sure-fire passes to Mack — or to a running back in stride on a screen — the North Carolina State defense may adjust, sending Moore and/or Street on pass rushes. Their ignoring of Mack could lead to a quarterback pressure forcing Wimbush to miss a chance at a deep completion to Chase Claypool on the sideline.

The two-yard out route may have a reasonable ceiling of no more than eight yards, and missing it may not be as dangerous as missing on other throws, but those mistakes diminish the passing game’s potency, nonetheless.

As long as he keeps leading Notre Dame to victories, don’t expect Irish quarterback Brandon Wimbush’s starting job to be in any danger, no matter how inaccurate his passes sometimes may be. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

Let’s be clear, none of this will jeopardize Wimbush’s starting gig.

“What’s most important is his ability to lead, first and foremost,” Kelly said Tuesday. “Does he clearly communicate? Does he have the trust of the other 10 players? Is he a great competitor? … If you look at the [Boston College victory] where he wasn’t throwing the ball very well, he found a way to win.”

While Wimbush finds those ways to win, the Irish coaching staff will cater to his strengths.

“We will go with what we need to do to make it work for Brandon until he develops the balance necessary within the offensive scheme of things,” Kelly said. “It’s just a matter of time.

“So it’s just easier for us to adjust to him than him adjust to us, because he’s got all those other traits. … It’s much easier for us to adjust to him and give him the time to continue to grow.”

Editor’s Note: This article began with intentions of speaking only to Wimbush’s passing (in)accuracy, but with Tuesday’s injury news, adding a packaged clip of sophomore quarterback Ian Book at the end seems appropriate.

Book attempted five passes in the fourth quarter, completing the first of his career to freshman Michael Young after a designed rollout made the out route a simple endeavor.

Book’s next attempt bounced off McIntosh’s chest. The color analyst may say Book intended to put the ball on the back half of McIntosh’s chest/shoulders, but if that was the case, it was a mistake. If a play is not designed as a back-shoulder throw, the receiver’s forward momentum will make a catch thrown there always more difficult than necessary. Yes, McIntosh should have caught it, but Book should have offered a better delivery, as well.

Miami covered Book’s third pass, a screen, well. Simple as that.

Then comes the deep completion to junior receiver Chris Finke. Not much can be said about that ball except wow, perfect placement.

Book’s day ended with another ball not thrown where it should have been, but still within the receiver’s reach.

Notre Dame QB Brandon Wimbush “day-to-day” with soft tissue right foot injury

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Junior quarterback Brandon Wimbush injured his foot at some point during Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH) on Saturday, Irish coach Brian Kelly announced Tuesday. Wimbush will be day-to-day this week in practice, with the severity of the injury largely-unknown at this point.

“We’re not going to push him really hard today,” Kelly said. “We’ll get him probably moving a little bit, throwing … but I’m not in a position where we need to have him practice today. My vision would be more toward getting him out there Wednesday for practice.”

Kelly said the injury occurred during the game but Wimbush did not feel any discomfort until later in the evening. At that point, he cut short his night and headed home, informing the medical staff of the pain at the mandatory Sunday noon check-in.

“Specifically, we don’t know exactly when it happened,” Kelly said. “But it’s pretty common. That’s why we have a check-in at noontime on Sundays. We get a lot of soft tissue injuries that don’t show themselves right after the game and will show themselves later after a period of time.”

Both an MRI and an X-ray came back clean, indicating the right foot issue is entirely in the soft tissue. For now, Wimbush is in a walking boot. Practicing Tuesday will be more of a medical evaluation measure than a football exercise.

“We put him in a walking boot to be really, really conservative in this instance,” Kelly said. “We’re going to take it off today to kind of see what we have. Rob Hunt, our trainer, couldn’t give you a diagnosis really in terms of what it is until we get [Wimbush] moving and flexing.”

To play at North Carolina on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), Kelly said he would prefer Wimbush get some genuine work in Wednesday, though even that may not be absolutely necessary.

“I’m not in a rush to judge here where he’s going to be,” Kelly said. “We’re still pretty optimistic that he’s going to be able to do something. It’s early in the week for us.”

As much as anything else, a quick recovery will be determined by Wimbush’s comfort level. Obviously, the dual-threat quarterback relies on making sharp cuts to incur much of his damage, especially as he works to develop consistent accuracy. If that is not the case by Friday, it would be very unlikely Wimbush starts against the Tar Heels.

“He’s got to feel comfortable and he’s got to feel 100 percent like he can put his foot in the ground do the things that he can do,” Kelly said. “… He wants to play. He’s a competitor.”

On internet rumors
Given there was no apparent sign of an injury in Saturday’s game and neither Kelly nor Wimbush mentioned one immediately after the game, when sightings of Wimbush in a walking boot hit the internet, rumors swirled the injury occurred while living the college life on a Saturday night. Kelly dismissed those notions.

“I trust what Brandon tells me,” he said. “I have no reason not to trust 100 percent what Brandon tells me.

“He went out and felt his foot was not right, and he went home. That’s what he told me. I believe him. I have no reason not to believe him based upon my relationship with him over the last three years.”

On backup quarterback Ian Book

Sophomore quarterback Ian Book threw for 51 yards and rushed for 37 in Saturday’s fourth quarter during Notre Dames’ 52-17 victory over Miami (OH). (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

Kelly said the sophomore has received about 40 percent of the snaps in practice throughout both the preseason and the last month. A 60/40 split would be typical for Kelly’s tenure.

“[Book has] gotten a lot of meaningful reps,” Kelly said. “This is not an NFL operation where the starting quarterback gets all the work.”

Book completed his first career passes against the RedHawks, leading the Notre Dame offense in three fourth quarter drives. He completed 3-of-5 passes for 51 yards, including a 48-yard completion to junior receiver Chris Finke. Book added 37 yards on three rushes.

Notre Dame’s Opponents: Georgia, Miami & Navy remain undefeated; one of those to be tested this week

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Three Irish opponents remain undefeated and all three are favored to win again this week. Overall, Notre Dame’s foes went 7-4 last weekend, not counting the Irish victory over Miami (OH), and they are expected to replicate that again.

Temple (2-3): Consider any Owl conference championship hopes dashed. Temple now stands 0-2 in the American Athletic Conference this season thanks to a 20-13 loss to Houston. That score was much more lopsided entering the fourth quarter, when the Owls outscored the Cougars 10-0.

Three interceptions from junior quarterback Logan Marchi make it seven picks in two weeks for Temple’s quarterback. The Owls also had great difficulty on third downs, converting only four of 16 attempts.

A possible win at East Carolina this weekend (12 p.m. ET, ESPNU) will cleanse some of that taste from Temple’s mouth, but it will not do too much as it pertains to longer-termed goals. The spread favors the Owls by 2.5 points with a combined point total over/under of 62, indicating a final score of 32-29.

Georgia (5-0): This space would need much less editing each week if it were kept simpler. Something along the lines of: “The Bulldogs defense stifled [insert opponent here], forcing X turnovers while the Georgia rushing attack powered the offense to a YY-Z victory.”

Georgia freshman quarterback Jake Fromm has not excelled statistically, but he has not lost as a starter and, thus, will likely keep his job even when sophomore Jacob Eason returns to health. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

In this instance, the Bulldogs defense stifled Tennessee, forcing four turnovers and tilting the time of possession toward Georgia’s favor by 10 minutes. The Bulldogs rushing attack powered the offense with 294 yards en route to a 41-0 victory.

Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm completed 7-of-15 for only 84 yards, one touchdown and one interception, but his game management was certainly enough to likely keep sophomore Jacob Eason on the bench even though Eason is nearing health, apparently.

Vanderbilt will be Georgia’s next victim (12 p.m. ET, ESPN). The Bulldogs are 17.5-point road favorites with an over/under of 42, hinting at a 30-13 conclusion.

Boston College (2-3): Freshman quarterback Anthony Brown did not wow — quite the opposite, actually, with 14-of-21 passing for 85 yards and a touchdown — but the Eagles topped Central Michigan 28-8 thanks to 224 rushing yards and three Chippewa turnovers. Those yielded zero points, but they at least cut short Central Michigan drives.

Boston College will face a much stauncher test this week, and a much more motivated opponent, for that matter. Virginia Tech takes to the road following a season-altering loss to Clemson. Favored by 16, the Hokies are expected to win 32-16. (7:15 p.m. ET, ESPN2)

Michigan State (3-1): The Spartans took care of business against Iowa, and not a whole lot more can be said. Michigan State topped the Hawkeyes 17-10, led by Brian Lewerke. The junior quarterback completed 18 of 28 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns while adding 42 yards on 12 rushes.

Remember a few weeks ago when Notre Dame ran right through the Spartan defense? That same unit held Iowa to all of 19 rushing yards.

Similar defensive success will be needed at Michigan (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC) to overcome an 11-point underdog status. The over/under of 41 points makes for a 26-15 hypothetical score. This will not be a trendy upset pick this week, and it probably shouldn’t be, but that is something to at least think about before Saturday.

Miami (OH) (2-3): Obviously, the RedHawks lost to the Irish 52-19, unable to contain the Notre Dame rushing attack.

They will likely be able to contain Bowling Green’s entire offense. The Falcons have yet to win a game this season, part of why Miami is favored by more than two touchdowns. Look for a 34-20 final, by the bookmakers projections, though a larger spread seems more likely.

North Carolina (1-4): The Tar Heels’ season has officially gotten away from them. A loss to Georgia Tech was expected. A 33-7 defeat was not. North Carolina has yet to beat an FBS-level opponent aside from Old Dominion.

The Tar Heels gave up 403 rushing yards and were outgained 456 yards to 247. Just how thorough was the Yellow Jackets’ game control? They had possession for 38:35.

Speaking of dangerous rushing attacks, here comes Notre Dame’s at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC. As of Tuesday morning, the Irish are favored by 16 points with an over/under of 64.5. By those numbers, file away a 40-24 prediction. Then remember the Irish defense has yet to allow 20 points this season and realize that alone could lead to a larger margin of victory.

USC junior quarterback Sam Darnold’s fumble on the Trojans final drive sealed the 30-27 loss. (AP Photo/Young Kwak)

USC (4-1): The Trojans fell at Washington State on Friday, 30-27. The night saw junior quarterback Sam Darnold set a new career-low in passing yards, failing to reach the previous mark set against Notre Dame in 2016. Darnold finished 15-of-29 for 164 yards against the Cougars while USC’s defense allowed 462 total yards. That offensive success may have best shown itself in Washington State’s 8-of-18 third down conversions and 35:27 of possession.

Darnold can look to boost his statistics this weekend as the Trojans host Oregon State (4 p.m. ET, Pac 12 Network). USC is not favored by five touchdowns, rather only 34 points with an over/under of 61. The thought of a 47-14 rout may be alluring to coach Clay Helton’s team, but any spread that large against a Power Five opponent should be viewed with skepticism.

North Carolina State (4-1): A 33-25 win over Syracuse may not speak of a promising future to come for the Wolfpack, but that score was skewed by the Orange notching a touchdown and a two-point conversion with fewer than five minutes remaining.

North Carolina State gained 206 yards through the air along with its 256 on the ground, the latter quite a number when compared to Syracuse’s 59 rushing yards. To continue the time of possession theme this week, the Wolfpack had control of the ball for 36:29.

Now comes a second major test of the season — the first being a win over Florida State. Louisville visits the Wolfpack on Thursday (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). As four-point underdogs, expect North Carolina State to come out on the high side of a 34-31 projected final.

Wake Forest (4-1): The Demon Deacons’ dream season fell apart with less than a minute remaining against Florida State. A 40-yard touchdown pass gave the Seminoles a 26-19 win, despite Wake Forest senior quarterback John Wolford completing 24 of 34 passes for 271 yards.

The Demon Deacons’ shortcoming came in the ground game, taking 34 rushes for only 96 yards, a 2.8 yards per carry average. They just could not quite put Florida State away.

On one hand, another opportunity arrives quickly. On the other, that opportunity is even more difficult. Wake Forest heads to No. 2 Clemson (12 p.m. ET, ESPN2) as three-touchdown underdogs. The over/under of 47 projects to a 34-13 final.

Miami (FL) (3-0): A season interrupted by Hurricane Irma gained momentum with a 31-6 victory at Duke on Friday. Only leading 17-6 entering the fourth quarter, Miami never let the Blue Devils make it too much of a close contest.

Duke attempted 42 passes, gaining only 166 yards. Its longest completions were for 28 and 27 yards, no other passes exceeding 20 yards.

For a better litmus test, the Hurricanes head to Florida State this weekend (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN). Despite it being a road game in a very hostile environment, Miami is favored by 3.5 points with an over/under of 48. A 26-23 final would be closer than probably should be expected.

Junior quarterback Zach Abey has led Navy to a 5-0 start to the season, next to be challenged by Air Force.. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Navy (4-0): For a little bit Saturday, the Midshipmen looked ready to toss aside an undefeated season, falling behind Tulsa 14-0. Then, they merely scored 31 unanswered points to cruise to a 31-21 victory led by junior quarterback Zach Abey’s 36 rushes for 185 yards and three touchdowns. Malcolm Perry and Chris High also played pivotal roles in the rushing game (10 carries for 104 yards and a score; 13 rushes for 89 yards, respectively) as Navy gained a total of 421 yards on the ground.

Navy is going to Navy, it seems.

Now, it hosts Air Force (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network), favored by 7.5 points. The Midshipmen should come out ahead 30-22 by the metrics cited so often here.

Stanford (3-2): [Insert Bryce Love praise here.] Aside from the Cardinal junior running back, though, it was something of an underwhelming performance despite it ending in a 34-24 victory against Arizona State. Stanford gave up 214 rushing yards on 46 carries, a 4.7 Sun Devils average.

Life will get a bit more difficult for the Cardinal and Love will have his altitude fitness tested at Utah (10:15 p.m. ET, FS1). Favored by just less than a touchdown with an over/under of 55, Stanford is expected to prevail 31-24.

Questions for the Week: Stepherson vs. the depth chart; Notre Dame’s rush vs. North Carolina’s lack of D

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Each week, these questions have led off with an acknowledgement of Notre Dame’s various ankle concerns. This week, that may not be as necessary. Irish coach Brian Kelly was confident both Saturday night and Sunday afternoon junior running backs Josh Adams and Dexter Williams would be fully healthy for kickoff at North Carolina despite each nursing sprains currently.

Instead of that recurring bit, let’s turn to what could become another one.

Will Kevin Stepherson move up the depth chart?
The sophomore receiver did not show anything this Saturday to force this issue just yet, but his success as a freshman makes it a possibility, if not this week, then at some point in October.

Currently, Stepherson is not listed on Notre Dame’s two-deep. In order to move up at boundary receiver, where he will most likely see time, Stepherson would need to surpass fifth-year senior Cam Smith or, more plausibly, either freshman Michael Young or junior C.J. Sanders.

More practically, sophomore Chase Claypool has emerged at the boundary position, no matter what the depth chart may read. With that logic, Stepherson’s best odds may come when viewing the Irish receivers as a position-less whole. Claypool and junior Equanimeous St. Brown have established themselves as the top two. After that, everything remains in flux.

“We feel a little bit more comfortable on the perimeter with Claypool and [St. Brown],” Kelly said after Notre Dame’s 52-17 victory over Miami (OH) on Saturday. “We’re still a work in progress with some of the other receivers. … We’re still evolving. We’re getting closer, but no, I’m not ready to tell you that we’re solid in our first three guys yet.”

If Stepherson continues to drop passes as he did with the second ball thrown his way in this weekend’s first quarter, then cracking that top three is a far-fetched thought. Double that point when remembering junior receiver Chris Finke’s diving grab of an Ian Book pass in the fourth quarter. Finke has consistently shown strong hands, part of why he is an option to be the established No. 3 receiver.

How high will the spread rise before kickoff at North Carolina?
Technically speaking, the Irish opened as 14.5-point favorites over the Tar Heels, but that number quickly jumped to 17 points, where it currently stands. (On that note, a strict definition of “opened” is the very first number bookmakers release. Some, yours truly included, prefer a working definition of where the spread lands after the initial action, typically a more precise figure to have in mind through the week.)

Even if it has been fourth-stringer sophomore running back Deon McIntosh, the Notre Dame running game has rarely been slowed this season, and not at all in the last three weeks. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)

North Carolina gave up 403 rushing yards to Georgia Tech this weekend, further lowering a poor rush defense’s rank to No. 112 at 221.8 yards per game. Even if removing the option’s success Saturday, the Tar Heels have allowed 176.5 rushing yards per game. That would rank No. 89 in the country. To give that some context, the RedHawks rate No. 76 currently, giving up 161.6 rushing yards per game. (Removing Notre Dame’s 303 rushing yards, Miami jumps to No. 33 at 118.75 yards per game.)

North Carolina is allowing 33 points per game. Its only win came against FCS-level Old Dominion, 53-23. If keeping to Football Bowl Subdivision teams, the Tar Heels are winless and giving up 38 points per game, repeatedly getting gashed on the ground.

The Irish, meanwhile, have allowed only 18.2 points per game. And you may have heard, Notre Dame showcases an above average running game, rushing for the country’s seventh-most yards per game with 301.4.

Will North Carolina State prove correct those bullish on the Wolfpack?
No. 17 Louisville heads to No. 24 North Carolina State on Thursday (8 p.m. ET on ESPN). After falling 35-28 to South Carolina in the season opener, the Wolfpack have reeled off four wins. In beating Florida State and Syracuse the last two weeks, North Carolina State did not pull away at all — both were one-possession wins — but the Wolfpack controlled each of those contests.

That season-opening defeat could be written off as an anomaly, a slow start, knocking off the rust. Beating the Cardinals would strengthen that argument and establish N.C. St. as the only challenger to Clemson in the ACC’s Atlantic Division.

Will Wake Forest fold after a loss?
The Demon Deacons caught most off-guard with a 4-0 start. They lost to Florida State this weekend, but by no means is a 26-19 defeat to the Seminoles something to hang their heads about.

Losing by a touchdown this weekend would be one of the more surprising results of the year, in a good way as it pertains to Wake Forest. It heads to No. 2 Clemson (12 p.m. ET, Saturday, ESPN2). The Tigers have yet to truly be challenged yet this year, no matter what the scoreboard might reflect from their 14-6 win vs. Auburn on Sept. 9. It is not that Clemson has not played tough teams. It has. They just have not been a challenge.

Wake Forest likely will not be, either. (The current spread favors the Tigers by a slim three touchdowns.) If the Demon Deacons are competitive, though, that would establish them as a bona fide foe, despite preseason expectations.

Will the Yankees ease by the Twins?

Notre Dame director of media relations, Mike Bertsch, right — a devout Cleveland Indians fan. Irish coach Brian Kelly, left — a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan … October could get interesting. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Yes, that is a baseball question, but it will tie to Irish football without too much effort. The American League Wild Card game is Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN in Yankee Stadium. How does it relate to Notre Dame football? The winner will face the Cleveland Indians, directly impacting the mood of Irish director of media relations Michael Bertsch. Whoever wins that series could face the Boston Red Sox, Kelly’s preferred nine.