Blue and Gold Illustrated

Nov. 27, 2020

Blue & Gold Illustrated: America's Foremost Authority on Notre Dame Football

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32 NOV. 27, 2020 BLUE & GOLD ILLUSTRATED BY PATRICK ENGEL B link and you'll miss a first down. Or a touchdown. Or some type of explosive play. With North Carolina's of- fense, they come in floods — and more frequently than any team in the coun- try. The Tar Heels are first nationally in explosive play rate, at 20.1 percent, per ESPN's David Hale as of Nov. 9, nearly two percentage points ahead of the next best team that has played at least three games, Alabama. They're second in plays of 10 or more yards, at 22.1 per game, just behind Alabama. North Carolina is not ranked No. 1 and is fighting just to be on the fringe of the New Year's Six race, but still presents Notre Dame's defense a test nearly as difficult as stopping Clem- son. The standard for the Irish in this game is effective damage control rather than domination. Head coach Mack Brown's second team of his second tenure at North Carolina is a threat to score from in- side its own territory on any play. No opposing defense feels truly comfort- able even if the starting field position is inside the 10-yard line. The Tar Heels' 7.5 yards per play ranks third in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) among teams that have played at least three games as of Nov. 7. They scored at least four touchdowns in all but one of their first seven contests. The offense is balanced and has chunk-play generators all over the skill positions. It is manned by a quarterback who's aggressive in pushing the ball downfield and of- ten successful in completing those throws. And it's one of only three FBS offenses to earn top-10 overall passing and rushing grades from Pro Football Focus (PFF). North Caro- lina's 93.5 passing mark from PFF is the best of any team. Brown's fast success in what was considered a rebuild situation when he took over is tied to an instant-im- pact quarterback. Not a month after his (re)hiring in November 2018, he flipped four-star and top-150 over- all recruit Sam Howell from Florida State. Howell won the job in training camp and threw 38 touchdown passes in 2019, the most ever by a true fresh- man in the FBS. His play, as much as anything, led to a 7-6 record and a five-win improvement from 2018. He hasn't slowed down. Through Nov. 7, Howell was one of seven FBS passers who was averaging more than 10 yards per attempt. He also was fifth nationally in passer rat- ing when under pressure. His 57.3 completion rate on throws at least 11 yards downfield was seventh in the country, and he had 11 touchdowns on such tosses. After Howell threw for 235 yards and three touchdowns in a 56-24 win over Duke Nov. 7, noted quarterback guru and Blue Devils head coach Da- vid Cutcliffe said: "He threw pin- point passes. He has command of their offense and poise." All told, Howell has thrown for 2,081 yards with 17 touchdowns and five interceptions while completing 67.0 percent of his passes through seven games. His top receiver, junior Dyami Brown, was averaging 18.0 yards per catch and had 666 receiving yards. As if that wasn't enough, Howell is flanked by a pair of running backs who have rushed for more than 700 yards apiece. Junior Javonte Williams and senior Michael Carter were two of the four FBS players to average 7.0 yards per rush or more on at least 70 carries through Nov. 7. They have also combined to catch 32 passes for 408 yards and three touchdowns. Williams' 14 rushing touchdowns were tied for the national lead, while his 17 total touchdowns ranked first. He was also third among all FBS run- ning backs in yards per catch (mini- mum 10 catches), at 15.6, and is atop the leaderboard in PFF's "elusive rat- ing" stat. "He has improved as much as any- body since the first spring we were here [in 2019]," Brown said. "He was a short-yardage and goal-line guy. We didn't know how good he was. In the spring, he looked good, we knew Michael looked good and we had two good ones. … The combination of those two has been really power- ful for us. "I think we have the best combina- tion of running backs in the country." Added Howell: "Every single as- pect of his game, he has just gotten better at. I think he sees the game a little bit better, his vision has gotten better. I think he has a lot more bal- ance than he had last year." The potent offensive numbers can go on and on. At some point, though, one wonders why North Carolina has lost two games to teams with GAME PREVIEW: NORTH CAROLINA Facts & Figures NOTRE DAME AT NORTH CAROLINA Game Info Date: Nov. 27, 2020 Site: Kenan Memorial Stadium at Chapel Hill, N.C. Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET Television: ABC Radio: This game can be heard on Notre Dame's IMG affiliates. Series Facts: Notre Dame leads 18-2 and won the last meeting 33-10 in 2017 at Chapel Hill, N.C. Head coaches: North Carolina — Mack Brown (13-8, second season of second ten- ure); Notre Dame — Brian Kelly (100-37, 11th season). Noting North Carolina: Brown coached the Tar Heels from 1988-97, compiling a 69-46 record with a pair of 10-win seasons and four bowl victories before accepting the same job at Texas, where he stayed until 2013 … Brown has the No. 16 recruiting class in 2021, according to Rivals' rankings, and signed the No. 12 haul in the 2020 cycle … North Carolina went 7-6 and 4-4 in the ACC last year, the first in Brown's second tenure, and beat Temple 55-13 in the Military Bowl … The Tar Heels last won the ACC Coastal in 2015, when they went 11-1 in the regular season … Prior to Brown's arrival, North Carolina lost nine games in consecutive seasons, leading to the dismissal of head coach Larry Fedora. Quick StrikerS The Tar Heels' explosiveness will push Notre Dame's defense to its limits Junior running back Javonte Williams led the nation in total touchdowns (17) and was tied for first in rushing touchdowns (14) through Nov. 7. He has gained at least 10 yards on a national- best 28 percent of his carries. PHOTO BY JIM DEDMON, USA TODAY SPORTS/ COURTESY NORTH CAROLINA

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