Notre Dame started the all-important month of October off with a win against Stanford. This weekend they return to their new ACC roots, welcoming Larry Fedora’s North Carolina Tar Heels to South Bend.
During the preseason, Carolina had the look of a dangerous upstart — a team that finished their 2013 season winning six of seven games with an offense that’s set 40+ records in Fedora’s short tenure in Chapel Hill. But the youth on the Tar Heels’ roster has hurt them early this season, and after wins over Liberty and San Diego State, North Carolina has lost three straight to East Carolina, Clemson and Virginia Tech.
The losses have exposed some flaws, most notably a defense that’s the lowest ranked unit of any Power Five conference participant. And while the offense is scoring at a healthy clip, it’s tough to win games when you’re giving up 42 points a Saturday.
To get us up to speed, we caught up with Daniel Wilco. He’s senior sports writer for North Carolina’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel. Wilco hails from Atlanta, spent his summer interning at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and is a senior majoring in advertising.
Let’s get ready for this weekend’s visitor.
Looking through the headlines this week about North Carolina and the Tar Heels’ 2-3 start, I was surprised that most focused on the offense. Am I missing something or isn’t the defense giving up 42 points a game?
You’re not missing much. Prior to the Virginia Tech game, UNC’s defense was definitely the problem everyone was focused on. They allowed the most yards (789) and points (70) UNC has every allowed in a game during the ECU blowout everyone would rather forget about. Then the next week, the Tar Heels allowed Clemson’s freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson to set a school single-game record with six touchdown passes in his first career start.
But against the Hokies, there was a different story. On the first play from scrimmage, both tackles on the young and injury-prone offensive line were beat and Marquise Williams was strip-sacked, giving VT the ball on the 16-yard line. Not allowing points there would have been a miracle.
Though the team did give up a long touchdown drive later in the 1st, they allowed only three more points for VT’s offense until the 4th quarter. That stand gave UNC plenty of chances to pull closer with one or two scoring drives on offense, but that never happened, and thus, the criticism.
The defense’s struggles have been old news in Chapel Hill, and when they did show signs of improvement against the Hokies, they got no help. Two of VT’s scoring drives started in the red zone after turnovers and seven points came from a pick-6. The offense’s absence Saturday offered a fresh reason as to why the team came up empty.
Back to the offense, it looks like you had a pretty strong opinion about the quarterback platoon. You certainly aren’t alone. If it were up to you, how would you split snaps between Marquise Williams and Mitch Trubisky? On paper, it doesn’t make much sense for Trubisky to be playing. What’s Fedora doing here?
For the most part, I wouldn’t split snaps between them. The current system really doesn’t make sense on paper, on camera or on the field. To be clear, I don’t think that Trubisky is an awful quarterback, or that Williams is a perfect one, but in the current two-quarterback offense Fedora persists upon running, neither one can play to the best of their ability.
Fedora might be trying to give Trubisky valuable playing time in order to grow the redshirt-freshman quarterback for the future, or maybe he still doesn’t completely trust Williams, but he needs to stop being indecisive. UNC has been drastically worse on its third and fourth drives this season and that isn’t a coincidence.
What Tar Heel fans can only hope is that Fedora promised Trubsiky playing time during recruitment and sticking to his word. Trubisky was Mr. Ohio and had offers from Alabama, Michigan State and Ohio State, yet he chose scandal-riddled North Carolina. There is speculation Fedora promised valuable playing time on an up-and-coming team to the Ohio native and hopefully that is true. Anything else would make less than zero sense.
Let’s get to the defensive side of the ball. Late last season, it looked like this group had found its rhythm. But the numbers have been really, really ugly for this group. Is it possible to peg these struggles to one thing? Have injuries ravaged this group? A youthful depth chart? What exactly is going on here?
The youth definitely has something to do with it. The secondary lost Tre Boston and Jabari Price and the line lost Kareem Martin. All three combined for eight of 20 turnovers and were in the top four of tacklers on the team last year. Martin had 21.5 tackles for a loss and 11.5 sacks. Those numbers are sorely missed this season. Through the first five games, UNC is allowing 80.8 yards per game through the air more than last season. And while the defensive line has improved this season in stopping short gains, the team is consistently beat on the long ball — UNC has allowed 14 of 27 touchdowns from outside of the red zone.
Larry Fedora promised to deliver some offensive fireworks when he took over the program in 2012. He’s done that. But assess the head coach and his staff as we’re at the quarter-turn of year three?
He definitely has, and at times it’s thrilling to watch. Where Fedora’s system thrives is with explosive and trick plays. Ryan Switzer is a perfect example of this. The freshman phenom had five punt returns for touchdowns last season, but he’s also thrown two passes in his career at UNC, and both went for touchdowns. Even punter Tommy Hibbard has recorded a throwing touchdown this season. I like Fedora’s guts and his courage to call risky plays in tough situations, but the team finds itself in tough situations way too often.
Where the “Smart, Fast, Physical,” system falls short however, is when the team can’t rack up first downs. The team was 2-for-17 on 3rd and 4th downs against VT. UNC’s defense was on the field for 41 minutes against Virginia Tech, 34 minutes against Clemson and 35 at ECU. Furthermore, the “Smart” aspect of his formula has been noticeably absent recently. The Tar Heels had 15 penalties against Clemson and 10 more against VT, including two offside calls that took a VT 3rd-and-6 to a 1st-and-goal. UNC is ranked No. 118 out of 125 FBS schools in penalties this season. Those numbers are not conducive to getting stops.
Notre Dame fans remember Elijah Hood, the five-star back that was committed to the Irish before deciding to stay home. He looks like he’s having some early success this season. And Ryan Switzer’s true freshman season may just be the greatest season Irish fans have never heard about.
Elijah Hood has definitely shown promise this season, but again, there’s some unfulfilled potential. He’s been the standout that he was expected to be in the running backs corps, but that corps has been drastically underutilized. Going back to the Virginia Tech game, three backs accounted for just 15 yards on nine carries.
Marquise Williams’ dual threat capabilities are phenomenal, but they’re also a tad overused. Williams leads all rushers this season with 11.4 carries per game, while Hood leads the backs with 7.8 per game. When Hood does get the ball, he’s a workhorse. He’s averaging 4.3 yards per carry and always seems to fall forward (he has only three negative yards this season).
Though he’s had a somewhat slow start compared to his breakout season last year, Switzer seems to fit perfectly in Fedora’s system, as I mentioned above. He’s extremely quick out of the gate and hard to bring down one-on-one. Also he’s got quite the arm (a 925.6 QBR last season and a 724.0 QBR this year). I wouldn’t be surprised if he finds himself throwing his third pass of his career in South Bend. If anyone wants to know more, they can check out my feature on Switzer from this preseason.
North Carolina’s offense is statistically out-playing Notre Dame’s. What should the Irish defense be worried about?
Mack Hollins. The special teams walk-on turned wide receiver has been the highlight of UNC’s young talent and a consistent deep threat. His 20.5 yards per catch leads all receivers who have at least 10 catches, and he’s hauled in three touchdowns as well. But it’s the way he makes those catches that truly stands out. Take it from Marquise Williams. “You always should look for Mack Hollins,” Williams said after practice last week. “You can throw the ball five feet out of bounds, he’ll probably still catch it, that’s how good Mack Hollins is.”
There are some intriguing pieces on defense. Junior Gnonkonde looks like a load coming off the edge. Brian Walker looks like a ballhawk on paper. How do you see Dan Disch’s defense trying to slow down Everett Golson and the Irish?
It’s really all or nothing with the UNC secondary. When they aren’t completely forgetting that two receivers are on the field, they’re recording an interception every game, including a 100-yard pick-6 by Walker and a last-minute, game-saving interception in the end zone by Tim Scott against San Diego State. Still, the pass defense this season has been atrocious. UNC is ranked No. 121 out of 125 FBS schools in passing yards allowed and almost no amount of interceptions can make up for that.
Junior Gnonkonde and Nazair Jones have also come out of relatively nowhere to add much needed strength to the defensive line. Though the line struggled in the first three games, it has shown the most improvement on the defensive side of the ball since the ECU blowout, though that isn’t saying too much. Jones and Gnonkonde are No. 1 and No. 2 respectively in tackles for a loss, and Jones is tied for the most sacks on the team with two. If these two can continue improving during the season as they have been so far, the defensive line could quickly become one UNC’s greatest assets.
The odds don’t look good for the Tar Heels this weekend. But the Irish are coming off an emotion and physical victory over Stanford and have a date in Tallahassee next week, with just about every Irish fan thinking this Saturday could be a trap. What’s the formula for Larry Fedora’s team pulling off the upset?
History is definitely not on UNC’s side. The Tar Heels have never beaten a team ranked higher than eighth on the road and are 0-11 at Notre Dame. But it isn’t completely out of the question. North Carolina is a decent team plagued by silly mistakes. For the upset to happen, UNC is going to have to find more of a run game than Williams, as Notre Dame has only allowed four passing touchdowns this season. The Tar Heels will also have to limit turnovers if they hope to stand a chance.
Three turnovers against VT led to 21 points for the Hokies and a deflated offense for UNC. It doesn’t look good for the Tar Heels in South Bend this weekend, but with a few successful trick plays, fewer momentum-killing penalties and a strong showing by the secondary, as Kevin Garnett said, anything is possible.
Special thanks to Daniel for taking the time to answer my questions. For more heading into this weekend’s game, check out the football coverage at the Daily Tar Heel and follow Daniel on Twitter @Daniel_Wilco