And In That Corner … North Carolina and Sam Howell try to right disappointing season at Notre Dame

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This was expected to be Notre Dame’s toughest game in 2021. Back in August, many thought the Irish could be favored in 11 games this year, but not on Halloween Eve against North Carolina (7:30 ET; NBC).

Instead, No. 11 Notre Dame (6-1) is the clear favorite against the scuffling Tar Heels (4-3). Is there enough substance left from those preseason thoughts to garner Irish worry? The News & Observer’s C.L. Brown lends some insight.

DF: It’s hard to look at the micro with North Carolina, but I should start there. How would you describe junior quarterback Sam Howell’s play this season? He was once a Heisman frontrunner, but now even his NFL stock has had some shade thrown upon it.

CB: He doesn’t have the same weapons around him as he did last year. Howell has really taken a lot more on his shoulders. It’s conceivable he could get 1,000 yards rushing this year (660 rushing yards, adjusted for sacks, through seven games). If you had told me that his previous two years, I would have told you you’re out of your mind, because he didn’t really run that much before this year. That’s just something that he’s taken on himself because the offensive line hasn’t been what many people expected it to be with all the returning starters from last year.

There’s been some injuries, a key injury to Brian Anderson at center, but still, the offensive line hasn’t been what they thought it would be. So I feel like Howell felt like he needed to take on more. I didn’t feel like he played that way the previous two seasons. It was, let me distribute this ball to the other playmakers and they will make stuff happen.

This year it’s, if I don’t make it happen, then it might not happen. That’s manifested itself in him maybe trying to do too much, especially early on in the season when you look at their losses to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech.

Is that only an on-field observation, or have you detected some of that personal burden in Howell’s general personality as well?

No, he’s had the same demeanor. He’s not the most boisterous or charismatic kind of figure. He’s a quiet leader, a by example kind of a guy.

He’s taken the disappointment — of the bigger picture this season, of falling out of the top 25 and not really being in a position to achieve the goals they had before the season — he’s kept that in perspective and there’s still a lot of fight in him and still a lot of fight in the team.

You mention the offensive line. I’ll run through the obvious stats real quick: 27 sacks allowed for a loss of 166 yards, another 21 official quarterback hurries. Those two numbers alone jump out when Howell has attempted only 211 passes. Against Georgia Tech, North Carolin averaged a comical 1.8 yards per rush. A week later, that improved to only 3.53 against Duke.

What can that offensive line do to hold off a very good Notre Dame defensive line? Anything?

To be fair, it’s not all on the offensive line. You can look at their receiving corps outside of Josh Downs, they really haven’t had anybody step forward as a playmaker. Separation has been a big point of emphasis for their receivers. They haven’t had what they’ve been used to. Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown spoiled them to a large extent. They don’t have those guys, those explosive guys that can become targets quick, get off their break and bam, they’re ready. That’s added a layer to it.

Also, they had a graduate transfer, Ty Chandler, at running back and a new set of running backs that have had to get acclimated to the pass protection. It’s been a perfect storm, if you will, of madness in their pass protection.

Of course, by no means is the Tar Heels defense blameless in this disappointing season, giving up 5.58 yards per play and 378 yards per game. What could it do yet this year to become a more complete unit?
It’s kind of funny with the defense, I would say they started off solid, and in some respects, it seems like they’ve regressed during the season. In that Virginia Tech game, the opener, they played well enough defensively to win the game. In the second half they allowed only 97 total yards on 29 plays. They shut them down in that second half.

North Carolina has created more turnovers this year (10 through seven games) than last year (11 in 12 games). There are some things they are doing well.

What usually comes back to bite the Tar Heels has been running quarterbacks. Jeff Sims at Georgia Tech, when he came into the game, he just took over (10 carries for 128 yards and three touchdowns). The same thing at Florida State, as one-dimensional as it seems like Florida State can be sometimes with Jordan Travis, he also had a phenomenal game (14 carries for 121 yards and two touchdowns).

The secondary is not what they thought it would be, at least at corner, because Storm Duck has played in only three games in the last two years. … You’re looking at Kyler McMichael and Tony Grimes, and McMichael has had tackling problems in open space. The guy from Miami gave him one juke and it was over. It was pretty bad.

In spots, they seem like they have played well and a lot of their young guys, it bodes well for next season, especially on the defensive line. Sophomore Myles Murphy comes to mind as a guy who has made a big step forward. But overall, not a lockdown defense by any stretch.

A few weeks back, after the 35-25 loss to Florida State, Tar Heels head coach Mack Brown pointed out the media also thought North Carolina would be a top-10 team this season. Criticizing that comment struck me as missing the context, but either way, the Tar Heels have fallen short of expectations. How has that resonated with Brown?
He was just trying to bring some levity after a huge disappointing loss to Florida State. You couldn’t read anything into that statement whatsoever.

In the beginning of the year, to a large extent, Brown tried to temper the expectations, and he said often that he felt they would be better next year than they are this year, but they just won’t have Sam Howell. They’ll be better in experience at just about every position, but obviously they are going to lose a program-changing kind of quarterback.

He said they had to prove it on the field. When you look back at the seeds planted back in August and before, he never really carried that swagger of a top-10 coach, a top-10 team. If you read the tea leaves of what he was saying, it was that they could potentially be good, but he had to see it first, they had to do it.

Notre Dame is favored by 3.5 points as of Thursday afternoon. What do you expect to see Saturday night?
This is why I don’t mess with Vegas. I thought this line was going to be Notre Dame by 10, to be honest.

I go back to North Carolina on the road in night games, they have just not played well. Their losses to Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech this year, their losses at Virginia and at Florida State last year — all four of those games, North Carolina just, for whatever reason, it sometimes does not come out strong enough. The Florida State game, they had a blocked punt on the first possession that led to a touchdown. They got down 24-0 in that game, it was big. The same thing has just happened in these road night games.

I don’t see a path that they win this game or keep it close unless they do something they haven’t done for the past two seasons in situations like this, which is entirely possible that they could, but given what they have done, show me. I haven’t seen it yet.

The one thing, them having an open date and extra time to prepare for this game and get healthy, the last two seasons North Carolina is 1-3 coming off an open date on the schedule.

That isn’t to say Notre Dame is going to roll early and it’s going to be over before halftime, but when all is said and done, I think Notre Dame wins — I hate to say fairly easy — I Notre Dame wins, and I don’t think it’s going to come down to the last possession.