No. 11 Notre Dame vs North Carolina: Time, TV, Preview & Prediction

SOUTH BEND, Ind. — For much of the summer, tonight was the night that most worried Notre Dame fans. North Carolina was a slight favorite all summer on this Halloween weekend. It appeared to be the game the Irish were most likely to lose.

Things have changed in the subsequent two months.

But, No. 11 Notre Dame (6-1) may still be tested by the Tar Heels (4-3), even if this is only the second true road game of North Carolina’s season and the first since the Friday evening before most of the country began their seasons, that standalone moment when all of the college football universe tuned into Virginia Tech to see the return of the Hokies’ “Enter Sandman” entrance and the Tar Heels subsequently lose 17-10.

In what should be junior quarterback Sam Howell’s final collegiate season, North Carolina has fallen short of most preseason expectations, the ones that suggested the Tar Heels would be favored tonight, but that dynamic offense has found some chemistry, averaging 41.3 points per game since that Friday evening faceplant.

Howell, of course, garners most of the notice, but also make note of sophomore receiver Josh Downs, with 60 catches for 837 yards and eight touchdowns in seven games. Downs’ worst day this season still featured eight receptions for 53 yards and a score.

“Downs is a really quick, inside slot receiver,” Irish head coach Brian Kelly said Monday. “… He’s your prototypical slot receiver. He can catch it and run and he’s been explosive.”

TIME, TV: 7:30 ET on NBC. The game will also be streamed on Peacock.

A Friday of rain will be followed by a cloudy Saturday in the low 50s, not exactly miserable weather but far from idyllic by any definition of the word.

The primetime kickoff will allow Notre Dame Stadium to once again attempt to grow the atmosphere in South Bend. While there is no official word that the Irish pregame entrance will once again be met with lights off and AC/DC’s chords, there is plenty of reason to expect as much. And though there may not be certainty that the fourth quarter will be preceded by Kanye West’s “All of the Lights” illuminated by only fans’ cell phones, it should be anticipated.

Notre Dame knows primetime kickoffs provide an opportunity to trot out new tricks and a chance to do so in front of larger audiences. The Stadium will never be like “everywhere else” as some fans may fear, but making the atmosphere feel a bit more — emphasis on a bit here, because it is far, far away from closing in on this comparison — SEC-esque should be considered a good thing.

The players unanimously consider it to be. In that respect, they are assuredly looking forward to the start of the fourth quarter tonight.

PREVIEW: No matter how often warnings of Downs are offered, most of the focus will remain on Howell. The attention will certainly not land on a defense giving up 35.6 points per game in five games against FBS opponents not named Duke.

Likely first-round draft picks garner that tunnel vision, particularly ones who were once Heisman frontrunners. Even in a struggle of a year, Howell has thrown 18 touchdowns against only six interceptions, averaging 8.8 yards per attempt, but what has changed about him in 2021 is his reliance on his legs.

Discounting sacks, Howell has taken 69 rushes for 660 yards, an average of 9.6 yards per carry. When he begins to find the seams in a defense, he can wreak havoc, taking 9 rushes for 110 yards against Georgia State and 14 for 115 in handing Virginia one of its two losses this season (sacks adjusted).

Notre Dame is well aware of Howell’s mobility, even if it held him to just 44 yards on five rushes in last year’s Black Friday victory (sacks adjusted).

“They have some big O-linemen, and since they all returned, they have some unity among them,” Irish junior defensive end Isaiah Foskey said Tuesday. “Sam Howell is pretty tough to bring down. I remember trying to tackle him last year. I had to grab some help from [then-defensive tackle Myron Tagovailoa-Amosa] to try and get the sack. …

“Since [Howell is] running a lot more this year, it’s going to be a lot more tackles on him.”

There is a downside to Howell’s regular running, though. North Carolina has given up 27 sacks at a loss of 166 yards this season. Not all of those are on the offensive line. Some of the responsibility goes to the Tar Heels’ receivers for not getting open in a timely fashion, and some of it belongs with Howell himself, unnecessarily dancing into pressure much more often than rarely.

That may be to Foskey’s benefit and, in time, Irish great Justin Tuck’s expense. The Notre Dame record for sacks in a season remains Tuck’s 13.5, but Foskey already has eight, putting him currently on pace to reach 14 or 15 in a 13-game schedule. Of course, that was never Foskey’s goal this season.

“My mentality going into this season, I knew I was going to be a starter and getting more reps,” he said. “… I knew the production was going to go my way. I know my ability and what I can do, but my angle was never to get a sacks record. I was going to get [tackles for loss], tackles, sacks. It wasn’t a number I was going for.”

Foskey said he did not even know what the record is in the summer, and given his surprise this week when he learned not only of the 13.5 mark but also that it is Tuck who holds it, that does not come across as false modesty. For that matter, Foskey did not deny the allure of reaching the mark, now that he knows it.

“Yeah it would be cool to get, just to have your name up there, sack leader, that would be really cool.”

One other Notre Dame sacks record should be mentioned, one slightly less official, one that would be particularly poignant to be reached this season for those who typically track these things. The Irish team record for sacks in a game is nine, a number known only because a few years back one beat writer could not find it listed anywhere and asked the then-sports information director.

After he consulted every box score on file, he double-checked with the late Lou Somogyi, a greater statistical resource of Notre Dame trivia than any mountain of box scores. Lou confirmed he could not remember any game with more than nine Irish sacks, last reached in Lou Holtz’s last game, a 62-0 win against Rutgers in 1996.

Notre Dame logging nine or 10 sacks tonight would be a shock, even against a struggling North Carolina offensive line and a (sometimes reckless) gunslinger in Howell, but Georgia Tech did get to Howell eight times, and the Yellow Jackets have only five sacks total in their other six games.

The Irish have 19 to date, not extraordinary, but enough to make this thought conceivable. With Foskey hunting, Howell scrambling and a Somogyi stat to trumpet less than seven months after his tragic passing, it is something worth wondering.

PREDICTION: As this live band at a South Bend bar pulls off the hard pivot from “Ain’t No Sunshine” to Ginuwine’s “Pony” late Friday night, PointsBet still considers Notre Dame a 3.5-point favorite with a combined point total Over/Under of 62.5. That exact timing — okay, actually very inexact. It was around 10 p.m. ET — is noted because there are indications the Irish could be 4.0-point favorites by sunrise.

Either way, it is a slim figure when considering Notre Dame has exceeded bookmakers’ expectations in four of its last five games, when considering North Carolina has faced just one true road crowd in the last 23 months and considering that when it did, it lost by a touchdown despite being favored by 4.5 points.

That was just one of four instances in the last two seasons — and remember, it was the only one with a true road crowd — in which the Tar Heels have gone on the road in primetime as a favorite and lost.

Meanwhile, the Irish have made playing as a favorite a habit, a largely successful one at that.

Setting aside last week’s successful up-tempo attack from Notre Dame, setting aside the increasing coalescence of the Irish offensive line, setting aside the veteran status of the safeties replacing All-American Kyle Hamilton in DJ Brown, Houston Griffith and Isaiah Pryor, those North Carolina road trends alone give reason to lean against the close game suggested by those odds.

Notre Dame 31, North Carolina 17.
(Straight up — 6-1; Against the spread — 5-2; Over/under — 5-2.)

Yes, that is the score of the Irish win at North Carolina last year. Sometimes past references make the best predictions of the future.

INSIDE THE IRISH
The ‘Lights’ at Notre Dame, and a Kyle Hamilton injury update
November may be coming, but skip the usual Playoff conversation
Lacking Kyle Hamilton against North Carolina, Notre Dame again turns to DJ Brown
And In That Corner … North Carolina and Sam Howell try to right disappointing season
Things To Learn: A week after decisive QB play, ND will still focus on 2 QBs vs North Carolina
How to watch North Carolina vs Notre Dame: Live Stream, TV info for tomorrow night

OUTSIDE READING
DJ Brown is ready to tackle first career start on Saturday against North Carolina
How the Irish amplified the atmosphere in Notre Dame Stadium with lighting and music
Humble Michael Mayer stays grounded amidst burgeoning stardom
Andrew Kristofic ‘ecstatic’ with move to the offensive line’s interior
‘Up to us’: UNC seeks to write feel-good finish starting with tough scene at Notre Dame
Jaxson Dart won’t start at QB? Why USC freshman might stay No. 2 behind Kedon Slovis
High school team plays road game without coaching staff… and wins

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    Lengthy Texas cornerback joins Notre Dame class of 2024

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    Maybe Benjamin Morrison and Jaden Mickey will be anomalies, but if they are precedent-setters, then Notre Dame may have snagged another unheralded but promising cornerback with the Saturday afternoon commitment of consensus three-star Leonard Moore (Round Rock High School; Texas).

    Moore also holds scholarship offers from Oregon, TCU and Vanderbilt, to name a few. In total, he has offers from six schools in the Pac-12, three in the Big 12, two in the SEC and one in the ACC, an intriguing widespread array from someone not yet lighting recruiting rankings on fire.

    At 6-foot-2, Moore should have the length to become a physical cornerback, one perhaps more in the mold of current Notre Dame fifth-year cornerback Cam Hart than the rising sophomore Morrison.

    Moore’s highlight reel starts with a few interceptions, naturally, and a punt return. Pass breakups are not necessarily the most enthralling of film. But then he sheds a block to force a fumble and soon defends a back-shoulder throw with ease. Moore is clearly a playmaker, particularly given no level of Texas football should be scoffed at. He intercepted three passes, forced two fumbles and broke up four passes in 2022 as a junior.

    He readily anticipates routes and when needed funnels his man as the defensive design demands.

    Moore runs track, as well, with decent 200-meter times in the low 23-second range.

    The eighth commitment in the class of 2024, Moore is the second defensive back, joining consensus three-star cornerback Karson Hobbs (Archbishop Moeller; Cincinnati). While team recruiting rankings are thoroughly premature more than 10 months before anyone can officially sign, thoroughness demands mentioning that Notre Dame’s class is currently ranked No. 2 in the country behind only Georgia with 10 commitments.

    RELATED READING: An early look at Notre Dame’s seven commits in the class of 2024, including QB CJ Carr

    A cursory look at the depth chart suggests Moore could have an avenue to early playing time in South Bend. Hart likely will move on to the NFL after the 2023 season, a shoulder injury tipping the scales toward returning this offseason. Aside from him, the only cornerbacks with experience on the Irish roster are Morrison and Mickey and rising senior Clarence Lewis. Any of the four young cornerbacks that do make an impression in 2023 will effectively be on equal footing with Moore.

    Reports: Tommy Rees heads to Alabama after 10 total years at Notre Dame

    COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 23 Notre Dame Spring Game
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    If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

    Tommy Rees will leave Notre Dame to do just that, heading to be the offensive coordinator at Alabama, according to reports Friday afternoon. Nick Saban and the Tide denied Rees a national championship as a player in 2012 and a title game appearance as an offensive coordinator in 2020.

    The South Bend Tribune‘s Mike Berardino first reported Rees’s decision, coming a day after reports initially surfaced that Rees was Alabama’s preferred choice for the gig, and he had flown to Tuscaloosa to consider the position.

    Those unbeaten regular seasons, along with one in 2018 as the Irish quarterbacks coach, were the high points of Rees’ total of a decade with the Notre Dame football program. Like his former head coach, he will now head to the SEC chasing a higher peak.

    Of course, Rees spurned Brian Kelly’s invite to join him at LSU last winter, instead memorably telling the Irish offensive players, “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” setting the tone for the first week of Marcus Freeman‘s tenure as Notre dame head coach.

    RELATED READING: Tommy Rees turns down Brian Kelly’s LSU overture and will remain at Notre Dame
    Jack Swarbrick, Marcus Freeman and Tommy Rees brought stability to Notre Dame long before and obviously after Brian Kelly sowed chaos

    Alabama made an offer Rees could not refuse, even if a year ago he said, “I love this place (Notre Dame). I believe that we can win a national championship here, and I’m committed to doing everything we can to get to that point.”

    Going to Tuscaloosa does not render those words empty. Rees is going to work for the greatest college football coach in history in a role that has repeatedly springboarded coaches to better opportunities. Since Saban arrived at Alabama in 2007, his offensive coordinators have gone on to be, in chronological order, the assistant head coach at Texas (Major Applewhite), head coach at Colorado State (Jim McElwain), offensive coordinator at Michigan (Doug Nussmeier), head coach at Florida Atlantic (Lane Kiffin), head coach at Texas (Steve Sarkisian) and offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots (Bill O’Brien).

    Thus, Rees is bettering both his chances at a national title in the short term and his presumed path to whatever gig he wants next in the long term.

    He leaves Notre Dame after three seasons as the Irish offensive coordinator, which came after three years as the quarterbacks coach. The Irish have ranked No. 41, No. 19 and No. 30 in scoring offense the last three seasons, peaking with 35.2 points per game in 2021, the second-highest total in Brian Kelly’s tenure.

    But perhaps Rees’s finest moment as a Notre Dame assistant came when he finessed a mid-season quarterback switch to Ian Book from Brandon Wimbush despite the Irish remaining unbeaten throughout 2018. In some respects, Rees threaded a similar needle in 2021, incorporating Wisconsin graduate transfer Jack Coan, then-freshman Tyler Buchner and spot-reliever Drew Pyne; each quarterback could be credited as responsible for at least one win as the Irish made a Playoff push.

    Then this past season, Rees responded to Buchner’s shoulder sprain that cost him 10 games by working with Pyne to piecemeal an offense.

    From December of 2021:

    Rees has considered leaving his alma mater before, reportedly interviewing to be Miami’s offensive coordinator in recent years, not to mention weighing Kelly’s offer from LSU 14 months ago, as well as a previous brief dalliance with Alabama a few years ago.

    After leading Notre Dame’s offense in one way or another for 10 of the last 13 years, Rees has finally opted to do so elsewhere. It just so happens to be as part of the team that twice turned back the Irish and now faces Kelly every fall.

    Opportunities abound for Tommy Rees, earned recognition after a decade at Notre Dame

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    A lot of people go to college for seven years. For Tommy Rees, it has been 10 years at Notre Dame, so to speak.

    Whether or not Rees leaves his alma mater this week, as multiple Thursday reports indicated Rees is the frontrunner to be Alabama’s next offensive coordinator, there is no bad choice in front of him. Either Rees returns as the Irish offensive coordinator for a fourth season, continues his pursuit of winning a national championship at Notre Dame after three postseason trips already in his career, or he learns under the best college football coach in history in a position that has springboarded coaches to greener pastures for about a decade now.

    Irish fans may spend most of their falls criticizing Rees’s play calls, but he is clearly someone well-respected in the coaching community. Seen as a future coach when he was a player and then navigating multiple delicate quarterback situations at Notre Dame, this is not the first time Nick Saban has chased Rees. He reportedly did so following the 2019 season, when Rees had not even spent a day as an offensive coordinator.

    Instead, Rees took over that gig in South Bend, losing to Alabama in the 2020 College Football Playoff, albeit a more competitive showing than when Rees and the Irish fell to the Tide in the 2012 title game. Miami sought Rees in recent years, and whispers of vague NFL interest have popped up more offseasons than not.

    If most of those people who go to college for seven years are called doctors, then Rees has put together a doctorate-level intellect evidenced by who wants to hire him. Alabama publicly sending a branded plane to South Bend to ferry Rees for a visit on Thursday underscored that reputation.

    Set aside the forced references to “Tommy Boy” — though the similarities do go past the first name and to a Catholic university in the Midwest — and realize Rees will leave Notre Dame at some point, probably sooner than later.

    Maybe he joins Saban this weekend. Alabama needs to navigate a first-year starter at quarterback next year in a conference that quickly seemed to catch up to the Tide last season, with both LSU and Tennessee staking claims as competitors with Georgia already clearly out in front and Mississippi in the mix. Competing with former Irish head coach Brian Kelly every year would make for juicy headlines, but what speaks louder to Rees’s credit is that this is the time Saban wants to snag him, when Alabama’s footing may be less secure than at any point since the ‘00s.

    Maybe Rees returns to Notre Dame, teams with Wake Forest graduate transfer quarterback Sam Hartman to ready for three top-10 matchups in 2023, and gets the Irish into the College Football Playoff for a third time in six years with the only constant quite literally being Rees.

    Oh, and both scenarios should come with plenty of money.

    Rees has no bad choice in front of him. That is a credit to him, even if fans would rather lampoon him than step back and acknowledge the intricacies of playcalling.

    If he heads to Alabama, the annual matchups with LSU will become delightful fodder from afar. His Notre Dame legacy will include “Call duo until you can’t speak,” his emphatic play call when he left the coaches’ booth early as the Irish upset Clemson this past November, and “I’m [bleepin’] staying,” Rees’s declaration to the offensive players last December amid a week of tumult.

    If he stays in South Bend, the next matchup with anyone in the SEC, most likely a 2023 bowl game, will drip with an on-field chance at validation. That legacy will include spurning college football’s best not once, but twice.

    For a quarterback who lost his starting job at Notre Dame not once (2011 preseason), but twice (2012 preseason), some pride has been earned. Saban’s stamp of approval carries all the weight needed in college football to assure someone of their professional standing.

    It may have taken a decade, but Rees can now know he belongs with the best, no matter what decision he makes this weekend.

    The lull of National Signing Day underscores need to move the early signing period

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    The early-morning chaos of today’s National Signing Day did not disappear with the implementation of the December “early” signing period in the 2018 recruiting cycle. It just moved six weeks earlier.

    In 2014, waking up at 6:45 a.m. ET to be logged on and publishing at 7 a.m. led to noticing one expected recruit had not yet signed with Notre Dame by 8 a.m. Pointing that out and reminding the world Michigan State was making a late push led to an Irish media relations staffer reaching out to quietly say something to the extent of, “Just letting the young man have his moment at school.”

    In 2017, less than two weeks after taking over this gig, waking up at 3 a.m. CT to churn through 2,000 words before signings could begin becoming official eventually led to napping through Brian Kelly’s Signing Day press conference.

    Nothing changed 10 months later. That December, the afternoon of Dec. 22, the Friday before Christmas, was spent waiting for receiver Braden Lenzy to officially choose Notre Dame over Oregon. Sitting at your parents’ kitchen table not helping your niece make a gingerbread house because recruiting-obsessed fans harassed a player through two de-commitments is not a strong way to conjure up holiday spirit.

    Coaches across the country advocated for the earlier signing period, claiming it would allow high-school seniors to make their collegiate decisions official earlier on in their senior years, particularly when the prospects had already made up their minds on where to play football at the next level. That was all optics, if even that.

    These high schoolers now make their decision official just six weeks earlier. In the preps football calendar, those six weeks are meaningless. Both the December signing period and today, the traditional National Signing Day, come well after the high-school seasons have ended.

    The truth was, coaches across the country did not want to tend to their solid commitments over Christmas and New Year’s, particularly not amid bowl prep. It was self-serving at best and short-sighted at worst.

    First of all, when the December signing period became reality in 2017, one-time transfers were not yet allowed without losing eligibility the following season. Secondly, no one predicted the early signing period would lead to the coaching carousel beginning earlier and earlier in the season. September firings used to be the result of only off-field scandals, not outright expected from half a dozen programs each fall. Athletic directors now want that headstart on hiring a new coach so he can have time before the December signing period commences.

    Exhibit A: Notre Dame may have ended up with Marcus Freeman as its head coach after Brian Kelly’s abrupt departure following the 2021 season, but if the primary signing date had not been lingering just a few weeks away, Kelly likely would not have jumped to LSU before the College Football Playoff field was set, and Irish director of athletics Jack Swarbrick would have taken more time in choosing his next head coach, more than the 48 hours he used last December. After all, Swarbrick took 10 days in hiring Kelly in 2009.

    Lastly, with a 12-team Playoff coming in 2025, December will become only more hectic.

    Those head coaches who wanted a little less stress over the holidays will then have to deal with, in chronological order:

    — Keeping their own jobs.
    — Securing their recruiting classes in the days immediately preceding Christmas.
    — Preparing their teams for bowl games.
    — Preparing their teams for up to four games if in the Playoff.
    — Re-recruiting any players considering entering the transfer portal before the winter window closes.
    — Winning a bowl game.
    — Retaining their coaching staffs.
    — Oh, and celebrate the holidays with their families, as was their want when they hollered for the early signing period.

    Most of those tasks are immutable and inherent to the sport.

    But one can move. It already has once.

    The logic is too clear. Nothing was gained in moving up the primary signing date by six weeks. And sanity was lost.

    This is, of course, a sport that prefers to ignore logic, but usually that is charming. A mustard bottle on the field is quirky; lacking a worthwhile voice of authority is stubbornly stupid.

    So the early signing period may not move as soon as it should (now), but it will move. There are no anti-trust worries tied to it, fortunately.

    And aside from the logic, cramming more content into December costs the media, too. Spreading out that context through the vacuum of mid-January to mid-March will be much appreciated.