And In That Corner … No. 19 North Carolina poses biggest road challenge of Notre Dame’s season

Sam Howell
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North Carolina no longer has a viable route to the ACC title game, but the No. 19 Tar Heels still pose the greatest threat to No. 2 Notre Dame’s momentum on that path. A prolific offense compensates for a sporadic defense to make Mack Brown’s team nothing if not entertaining. To give an idea of what version of that dynamic the Irish should expect Friday, let’s turn to C.L. Brown of The News & Observer, who aptly summed up North Carolina with his opening thought.

“It’s a fun team to watch offensively. They’re still trying to figure it out defensively. They have some great skill players and, so far anyway, they can score on anybody.”

DF: A fun team to watch indeed. It’s been a run of games now when the Tar Heels have needed that offense to show off, giving up 53 points to Wake Forest and 44 to Virginia. Aside from falling just short against the Cavaliers, sophomore quarterback Sam Howell has conjured up the needed magic. What has allowed him to make those performances so routine?

CLB: It seems like somebody in some way, shape or form asks that question of Phil Longo, the offensive coordinator, every week. We talked to Longo [Monday], and he goes back to Howell’s poise. He’s just a pretty even-keeled kid. He never, even last year when he was a freshman starter, never really buys into the hype of himself. Never gets too high, doesn’t get too low.

His knowledge of the offense is what Longo says puts him over the top, because he’s well-prepared for not only their game plan but versed in how a defense is going to try to play them in certain concepts that they have.

Howell doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. He still has yet to throw an interception in the fourth quarter, which I think is pretty remarkable, given that he started all of last season, too. He’s just somebody who is relentlessly going to keep coming. That’s what happened, they got down 21 points to Wake Forest. You knew the offense was going to score again. The question was only, could the defense get enough stops for that to matter. They pulled it out, 59-53.

There must be at least one flaw, one weakness in Howell. I am not trying to diminish his nearly 330 yards per game and 10.6 yards per attempt, or his 23 touchdowns against six interceptions. But aside from possibly Trevor Lawrence last year or Tua Tagovailoa in 2018, no sophomore quarterback is perfect. What is Howell’s shortcoming?

One of the major things that — he hasn’t said it publicly, but you can see it on the sideline sometimes — that drives Phil Longo crazy is Howell believes so much in himself that he will string out plays way longer than he should. A lot of times it will lead to a sack. He’s only now starting to throw the ball away as he should. He tends to hold the ball. There have been times when Longo, you can see on the sideline, has reacted. He probably wants to have those back. He has been pretty animated.

It didn’t happen as much in this last game against Wake Forest, but you see it happening in that loss at Virginia, the loss at Florida State. Howell tries to string it out too long, believes he can still make something happen, and then he gets dropped for 7-8 yards.

Tar Heels junior running back Javonte Williams leads a ground attack averaging 233.5 yards per game in a complementary role to Sam Howell’s passing attack. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Of course, Howell is not a one-man show, and North Carolina’s is not a one-dimensional offense. Both Javonte Williams and Michael Carter have rushed for more than 800 yards, with Williams finding the end zone 15 times. Do they set up the passing game or vice versa? Which aspect should Irish defensive coordinator Clark Lea make his priority?

They’re independent. Now, there are times where certainly the ground game gets going and then they are impossible to stop off play-action. It gets to be video game quality when the running game is going, because it’s hard for a defense to key in on something and know what’s coming, but I kind of feel like, in the Wake Forest game again as an example, they weren’t running the ball well, plus being behind 21, Sam Howell just starts chucking the ball. That’s how he ends up with his career highs.

I do think that in this game on Friday, they definitely need both. If Notre Dame can make the Tar Heels one-dimensional on offense, the Irish are going to win easily. They’ll need to keep Notre Dame off-balance to be productive.

Honestly, I think the first drive of the game that Carolina has the ball will tell a lot, because it has taken the opening drive for a touchdown in every game except at Florida State and Wake Forest. All the rest of the games, the Heels have scored a touchdown on their opening possession. I think we’ll have a tell for if it’s going to be, maybe not necessarily a long game, but we’ll see if maybe the Irish have their number early on just because of the success North Carolina has in scripting out the first drive and executing that first drive in all of these games.

We focus so much on Howell and the offense because the Heels defense is, to be charitable, not good. To quantify that charity, North Carolina gives up 30.8 points per game, including 35.5 in the last four, and more than 400 yards per game. It’s lazy to ask, “Why is the defense so bad?” but, this is a short week and I need to get a pound of duck wings into a marinade, so why is the defense so bad?

It has to do with them still trying to develop depth. Especially in the front seven, on the defensive line, they have their starter, an experienced guy, and then they get to young and freshmen backups at just about every position.

When that goes well, it can turn the game, as it did at Wake Forest, because they ended up going with some of their younger guys late in the game, and it helped on the defensive line, helped get some of the starters fresh for later in the fourth quarter.

Tar Heels freshman cornerback Tony Grimes saw crucial action once North Carolina was trailing at Wake Forest, even though he is of the age as most high school seniors. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

At corner, the youngsters played better that game than the guys who were experienced. Tony Grimes is a true freshman from Virginia who reclassified to enroll in school this year; he should be a senior in high school. He was rated by some as the No. 1 overall corner in the nation in that class. He’s played special teams and spot duty on defense, but they basically threw him to the fire once they were down 21 to Wake Forest, because they weren’t getting the kind of coverage that they needed.

He played solid. He ended up giving up a big play late once they got up 14, and Wake Forest scored on their final drive of the game, but outside of that he was solid. They also have a true freshman nickel back/safety, Ja’Qurious Conley, who they also just threw out there, too. Same thing, same time against Wake Forest, and he came through.

The secondary in general went from being what they thought was going to be a strength back in August in fall camp to having three guys opt out before the season, and their two starting corners — Kyler McMichael and Storm Duck — have been injured. Now Storm Duck only played two games, he was injured against Boston College, late in the fourth quarter of the second game, and hasn’t played at all, but he’s being cleared for practice and will be a game-time decision to actually play. He’s probably considered their No. 1 cover corner when healthy.

Kyler McMichael is a Clemson transfer who started every game except the last two. He will play, it’s just a matter of how much. We don’t really know if he’ll make the start. I feel like if he’s even 75 percent, no matter how rusty he is, he’ll start, because that’s where they are at corner right now.

Just the attrition they’ve had. They’ve had Myles Wolfolk, a graduate safety, ended up being academically ineligible. He played the first game and then was academically ineligible. They’ve had basically — it went from being a place where they thought they were going to have all this experience to getting younger and younger and now it’s patchwork in the secondary.

If they get both Duck and McMichael back, that’s definitely a big step for them to getting back to actually being a better defense and a defense that doesn’t have to rely on the offense to score 40 a game.

We are looking at a 5-point spread currently. Who knows if there will be holiday movement or a Black Friday discount. That is not so much meant as a forced reference to Thanksgiving as it is an acknowledgment that the line movement could come at an unorthodox time during this short week. What do you expect Friday (3:30 ET; ABC)?

Wow, that’s all? I’m not a betting person, but I would expect the Irish to cover that. I don’t want to say it like it’s going to be a cakewalk for Notre Dame to come here and win. You see the glimpses that this North Carolina can be a great team, but you also see the losses at Florida State and at Virginia. The Heels are not there yet. They can play tough, they show glimpses, especially with the offense that they have; this can be a special team, but they fall short.

They are definitely looking at this game as a barometer game to measure where they are nationally. When North Carolina got up to No. 5 before it lost to Florida State, at the time [Heels head coach] Mack Brown even said, that’s too high. Part of that was the season we’re in and the pandemic and everything — teams weren’t playing at that time.

I do think North Carolina is a top-25 team, and this game will show how far or how short they have to go to be a consistent team that is respected and feared even.