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.
Was a new #NotreDame Stadium tradition born with last Saturday's light show? "If things start to really stick, we can see what happens. It’s about creating a cool moment every time and making it cool for the fans.” https://t.co/MWnSRVGPYh
— Tyler James (@TJamesNDI) October 29, 2021
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.
Go off, Notre Dame Stadium.
— The Fighting Irish (@FightingIrish) October 24, 2021
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.
I hope #NotreDame has a game with 10 sacks next year for no other reason than the only way I have any idea the school record is nine is because of Lou Somogyi (with some credit to @SteelersPRMike).https://t.co/Q0epkrcBeZ
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) April 19, 2021
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.
Notre Dame has won each of its last 35 games as a favorite. Its last outright loss as a favorite game in 2017 vs Stanford. This is the sixth time in that stretch the Irish were favored by fewer than seven points – they won the previous games by 14, 24, 22, 21 and 29 points…
— Chris Fallica (@chrisfallica) October 28, 2021
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.
#NotreDame is favored by 3.5 against North Carolina tomorrow. You might not line that hook, but …
— Douglas Farmer (@D_Farmer) October 29, 2021
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
— 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