Notre Dame offers stiff challenge for struggling Tar Heels

UNC looking past luster of iconic Irish in search of a win

North Carolina head coach Larry Fedora is hoping to turn around the Tar Heels’ season with a win over Notre Dame on Saturday. (Brett Davis / USA TODAY Sports)

CHAPEL HILL — Playing Notre Dame doesn’t have the same mystique it once did for ACC schools now that the Irish are a member of the league in most sports.

The exception is football.

That’s especially true at a place like North Carolina, which has hosted the most famous brand in college football only five times in its history and just once since 1960.

North Carolina vs. Notre Dame
Kenan Memorial Stadium, Chapel Hill  |  Saturday, 3:30 p.m.  |  ABC

Even though the Tar Heels have fallen on hard times at 1-4 and are a double-digit underdog to the 16th-ranked Irish, there’s still a noticeable buzz in the air about Notre Dame’s visit to Kenan Stadium on Saturday.

“I’m sure our fans love it,” coach Larry Fedora said at his regular weekly press conference Monday. “It will be great for Chapel Hill. It’s good for everybody.”

Maybe not everybody.

Given his team’s fragile mental state and the growing number of key players that aren’t available because of injury, Fedora has a lot more to worry about Saturday than Rockne, The Gipper, those shiny gold helmets or Touchdown Jesus.

“For us it’s the next game and we’ve got so much to worry about within ourselves right now, just making sure we’re right,” Fedora said. “We don’t have a lot of time to spend thinking about who our opponent is or what our opponent is.

“They’re traditionally a great program and everybody knows that. It’s a great opportunity for our team.”

UNC (1-4, 0-2 ACC) could use a win in the worst way after traveling to Atlanta and taking a 33-7 pounding at the hands of Georgia Tech.

The problem is that Notre Dame (4-1) might be an even more challenging matchup than the Yellow Jackets because of their physical style and their ability to run the football.

The injury-riddled Tar Heels are allowing an average of 221.8 yards on the ground this season, second-worst in the ACC. The Irish, by contrast, rank seventh nationally in rushing at 301.4 yards per game with running back Josh Adams and quarterback Brandon Wimbush combining for more than 1,000 yards between them already.

Unlike Georgia Tech, which rushed for 403 yards with its triple option attack last Saturday, Notre Dame also has the added element of a passing game that will make things exponentially more difficult for a UNC defense that will be without linebacker Andre Smith — the team’s top tackler — and starting defensive linemen Tyler Powell and Jalen Dalton, among others.

“You can’t use that as an excuse,” Fedora said of his team’s depleted ranks. “You’ve got to find a way to get it done. We’ve got to find a way. I don’t want to be close. I don’t want any moral victories. I want our guys to find a way to get over the hump and that’s my job.”

As if coming up with a plan for stopping the other team isn’t a tall enough task, Fedora and his staff now also find themselves searching for ways to kick-start an offense that came within five minutes of getting shut out for the first time in Fedora’s coaching career.

The Tar Heels averaged 39.3 points in their first three games — close losses to California and Louisville, and their only win to date, on the road against Old Dominion — but have fallen off drastically since.

While Fedora has scaled back the playbook to help make things easier for redshirt freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt, the coach said his team’s recent offensive struggles are more the result of execution rather than poor offensive line play or a receiving corps that has lost three top targets for the season.

“There’s enough in the game plan to be successful,” Fedora said. “It’s not that we’re so limited that there’s no way we can be successful. It’s just execute the plays that are called against the defense you see.”

Officially, UNC will be seeking only its second win in 20 all-time meetings with Notre Dame. The Tar Heels’ only victory in the series was a 12-7 triumph in Chapel Hill in 1960, although they also beat the Irish 29-24 at Kenan in a 2008 game that was vacated as part of the NCAA sanctions placed on the program during the tenure of former coach Butch Davis.

Though the odds are against the current team pulling off a similar result — one that counts, this time — beating a team with the stature of Notre Dame could be just what UNC needs to kick-start a season on the verge of flying off the rails.

“There’s a lot of ball games left to be played,” center Cam Dillard said after Saturday’s loss at Georgia Tech. “That’s why we practice, that’s why we have rosters and why we have depth charts, so that guys are ready to roll.”