Things To Learn: Notre Dame’s defense may pivot on the new Irish center

Shaun Crawford
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Comparing  No. 19 North Carolina to Playoff favorites Alabama and Ohio State comes across as hyperbolic on the surface. The Tar Heels lost at Florida State and Virginia; neither the Tide nor the Buckeyes would suffer such indignities.

But North Carolina (6-2, 6-2 ACC) belongs in the conversation with the cream of the crop in one particular area: its offense, especially of late. SP+ rates the Tar Heels offense as No. 4 in the country, behind only Alabama, Ohio State and Oklahoma, two spots ahead of Clemson.

If No. 2 Notre Dame (8-0, 7-0) intends to actually compete in the Playoff this year, it will need to hold up against offenses of such firepower. Beating the Tigers 47-40 in double overtime is feasible once, but even the improved-of-late Ian Book should not be expected to lead the Irish to such heights two or three more times this season.

Clark Lea’s defense will have to slow, if not stop, some of the best offenses in the country, and North Carolina offers a test case.

“Extremely prolific on offense,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “… We’ve played similar teams, Clemson obviously comes to mind as an equally-talented team. … Deserving of all the accolades in terms of what they’ve accomplished. [The Tar Heels] don’t go away. They have come back in fourth quarters and won football games and they keep playing. It’s an equally dangerous team in terms of the way they keep playing, as well.”

Sophomore quarterback Sam Howell leads North Carolina, averaging an absurdist 13.1 yards per pass attempt across the last five games and 329 yards per game this season, with 23 touchdowns against just six interceptions while completing 67.7 percent of his passes.

“The quarterback can make any throw,” Notre Dame sixth-year safety Shaun Crawford said. “He’s good from in between the hash, outside the numbers. We have to make sure that we’re playing top-down and we’re tight in coverage, because he does fit the ball into small windows. He’s reading the safeties, he’s reading the corners. … We have to do a great job of disguising and staying true to our reads and playing tight in coverage.”

Tar Heels sophomore quarterback Sam Howell exudes the cliche gunslinger approach of many iconic quarterbacks, but that confidence does not lend itself to costly mistakes, as he has yet to throw a fourth-quarter interception in his career, despite starting from day one of his freshman year. (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

On top of being able to make every throw on the football field, Howell’s greatest ability may be his belief. Notre Dame could take a 35-0 lead into the fourth quarter on Friday (3:30 ET; ABC), and Howell would genuinely believe the Tar Heels would still win.

His late magic led to 35 straight points against Wake Forest two weeks ago, turning a 45-24 deficit into a 59-45 lead and a 59-53 win. Trailing by 21 at Virginia on Halloween, Howell directed three touchdown drives in the final 16 minutes, the comeback bid undone only by a Cavaliers field goal. Three unanswered second-half touchdowns at Florida State nearly became four before a series of comical dropped passes in the final minute cost Howell another attempt at magic. Two fourth-quarter touchdowns cut short Virginia Tech’s upset hopes in early October.

It seems to be a theme: North Carolina’s defense gives up points just to dial up the degree of difficulty for Howell. But with a path to the ACC title game still vaguely tenable — if the Heels beat the Irish, as well as No. 10 Miami on Dec. 12, then they need only Notre Dame or No. 3 Clemson to suffer one additional loss — this is a moment when North Carolina’s defense actually playing decent might not be outlandish.

At which point, the Irish will need to outdo Howell and a pair of running backs each with more than 800 yards this season.

Frankly, that defensive possibility may be complementary to the Heels. A team that can flip a switch like that does not give up 44 points to Virginia, otherwise averaging 25 points per game against FBS competition. Notre Dame should cut through North Carolina, but keeping the Heels’ points down will still not only prove crucial to reaching 9-0, but also to establishing a blueprint for January success.

It will validate the decision to lean on freshman cornerback Clarence Lewis more and more over Tariq Bracy. On the precipice of his fourth career start, Lewis offers better man coverage than Bracy, something that has plagued the junior since his freshman season, but Lewis’ broad grasp of the defense may still be concerning.

“As we evaluate each week, we just do what’s best for that unit,” Kelly said. “Clarence has done some things that I think that from an overall unit standpoint, we think Clarence has done enough to earn a starting position.”

How does a concerning broad grasp mesh with Kelly’s words regarding the overall unit? Lewis’ ability in man coverage frees up Crawford and sophomore Kyle Hamilton, sometimes to help him, sometimes to help elsewhere and sometimes to shore up the run defense. All three aspects will be needed on Black Friday.

Howell spreads the ball around, two receivers with more than 30 catches and a third averaging 22.75 yards per reception (freshman Khafre Brown). Both running backs — junior Javonte Williams and senior Michael Carter — have more than 200 receiving yards and multiple touchdowns through the air. Crawford and Hamilton will be needed in coverage, not just as over-the-top protection.

And they’ll be needed to stop that rushing attack.

“The challenges that we’ll face at safety is being patient, not in a hurry to get down in the run game, not in a hurry to get in our backpedal,” Crawford said. “To get in our read, to clear our cleats and to make sure that we’re seeing the right things. … We have to be patient, we’re tied in on that.”

This balance exceeds anything Clemson presented, as it surprisingly continues to struggle with its rushing attack. North Carolina’s individual players may not match the Tigers’ elite caliber, but the offense as a whole is more versatile and thus more reminiscent of Alabama’s or Ohio State’s. Along with a safety pairing combining veteran savvy with pure talent, both ripe with playmaking bona fides, the Irish will lean on some keep-away to limit the Heels’ explosiveness.

Notre Dame averages more than 34 minutes of possession per game. That takes some pressure off Lea’s defense in a few ways. Obviously, the opposing offense is on the field less. Nearly as apparent, the Irish defense gets longer rests between possessions. Less tangible, Lea and his assistants have more time with their charges to adjust.

“We want to be physical, we want to control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball,” Kelly said. “That’s how we play. They’re gonna play how they play.

“We have to minimize big plays. Obviously, the most important thing in this game is who can keep the points down.”

For Notre Dame, being physical and controlling the line of scrimmage on offense will also serve as an endorsement of sophomore center Zeke Correll in his first career start. (Junior Josh Lugg brings fewer questions in spot duty at right guard in place of fifth-year Tommy Kraemer as he recovers from an emergency appendectomy.)

Correll has put on nearly 25 pounds of “a coat of armor” since arriving in South Bend some 22 months ago, his 288 only about six pounds shy of junior starter Jarrett Patterson’s playing weight.

“[Correll] is nimble, he’s quick, he can snap the football,” Kelly said. “He’s very smart, really good pass protector, he can do the things. … A lot of [his time with the scout team in 2019] had to do with his not having the strength and the weight necessary to play the position the way we wanted it done. He’s addressed that, so we’re excited about it.”

Correll received rave reviews from the Irish defense last year, as he faced it and frustrated it every day in practice. Now, that same defense is hoping Correll’s debut success can make its life a bit easier.

If so, Correll’s pivot work may be, well, pivotal to Notre Dame defending the best offenses in the country.

(It’s a rule: One terrible pun is allowed on articles published on federal holidays, even if they do not relate to the holiday itself. I thank you for the dispensation, not to mention reading all the way to the end.)