Oct. 6, 2017
By John Heisler
The second of Notre Dame's Atlantic Coast Conference assignments arrives Saturday on the road against North Carolina. It only becomes more challenging after that--with the final three Irish contests against ACC squads--North Carolina State, Miami and Wake Forest--coming against a trio that currently stands a combined 12-2 (after North Carolina State's win Thursday night against Louisville).
Here are some areas to check out Saturday night in Chapel Hill:
1. Maintain the momentum. Notre Dame opened some eyes two weekends in a row in September by winning consecutive road games by three-touchdown margins in places where it seldom has been easy to survive (Boston College and Michigan State). Can the Irish now post a third road win against a Power 5 opponent by the first Saturday in October? The assignment against North Carolina is to continue that upward trend--with a victory meaning Notre Dame already will have won more games in 2017 than all of last season.
2. The Irish quarterbacks. North Carolina's injury situation in 2017 has been well-documented--with more than a dozen front-line players already lost for the season. This week Notre Dame's version of that kicked in at the quarterback position, thanks to a foot injury suffered by starter Brandon Wimbush. Wimbush practiced on a limited basis this week, with sophomore Ian Book earning more reps than usual. Book has been intriguing in his limited opportunities, including leading an impressive late scoring drive last week against Miami. The Irish simply hope the combination of Wimbush and Book, in whatever form, will be enough to get the job done against the Tar Heels.
3. Playing unranked teams. Since Brian Kelly took over in South Bend in 2010, his Irish teams that have been ranked in the Associated Press poll are 26-4 against unranked opponents. Away from home that mark is 9-2 (including 3-0 in both 2012 and 2015)--with the only defeats coming in 2013 at Pittsburgh and in 2016 in double overtime at Texas.
4. Keep an eye on the North Carolina running back. Sophomore Jordan Brown leads the Tar Heels in both rushing (269 yards) and receiving (20 catches). Last week against Georgia Tech he caught a career-high nine passes for a career-high 57 yards--and he ran for a career-best 123 against Old Dominion. He qualified as the Tar Heels' top returning rusher from 2016.
5. The Irish running game. Notre Dame's depth at the running back slot has been tested already this year, with the top three Irish backs all hampered at some point. Junior captain Josh Adams ranks fourth nationally in rushing yards (at 131.6 yards per game), though he has played in only three of the last eight quarters over the past two games. Dexter Williams and Tony Jones Jr. both have been banged up at times, but all three are expected to be available this week. Also added to the mix this week has been freshman C.J. Holmes, to go with sophomore Deon McIntosh. The Irish are intent on maintaining a solid ground game that this week ranks seventh nationally at 301.4 per outing--against a Carolina rush defense that has allowed 221.8 ground yards per game (112th nationally).