CHAPEL HILL — History always seems to follow Notre Dame football. When the Fighting Irish come to town, it sends everyone to the record book to check the last times and bests of the program’s long and storied history.
This week is no different, except for the side of the ledger on which the history is being made.
The Irish head to Chapel Hill to take on the 3-0 Tar Heels. Notre Dame is coming off its first win of the season, surviving a Hail Mary attempt by Cal to win by seven and improve to 1-2 in coach Marcus Freeman’s first season at the helm.
It’s the first time Notre Dame has played UNC with a losing record since the 3-4 Irish took on Carolina in 1962. It’s also the first time the Irish have had a worse record than the Tar Heels when the two teams played since 1956 when 1-6 Notre Dame faced 3-5-1 UNC.
The last time North Carolina had a winning record and a better record than Notre Dame at game time was 1950 when the Tar Heels were 1-0 and the Irish were opening their season. That’s also the only time that’s happened. This Saturday will mark the first time a winning UNC team faces a losing Irish squad.
UNC coach Mack Brown focuses on a different number in the record book, however: Four. That’s how many times Notre Dame has beaten the Tar Heels since UNC’s last win in the series, back in 2008.
The last two seasons, the Tar Heels have been in striking range, trailing by a touchdown in the final two minutes before the Irish scored late to ice both contests.
“We have been in position the last two years. We were down by seven here two years ago, they ended up scoring to beat us by 14,” Brown said. “We didn’t make a first down in the second half. We have been really good around here offensively, they completely shut us down better than anybody that we played since we’ve been here.
“Last year, we were down by four with a chance to win and they broke a 91-yard run, which you just can’t have happen. We had a fourth-and-3, we stopped them and got off the field, but we got a facemask across the field, on the other side of the field with a different player.”
This year, with the Irish perhaps down a bit from recent editions of the team, Brown wants to see the Heels take that final step forward and come out with the victory.
“We’ve got to be tougher,” he said. “Be more confident in the fourth quarter, to give us a chance to win. Those are things we have not been able to do. They are very, very physical in both line of scrimmages. This will be a good test for us to see if we can handle this.”
For a UNC team that opened last season in the Top 10 and then suffered a series of upset losses, Brown also wants to keep his players focused on the fact that it won’t be easy to beat the Irish.
“They played Ohio State (in the opener), who may be the best team in the country,” he said. He plans to show the team the video of that game, which saw the Irish play even with the Buckeyes for much of the day. “Don’t take that for granted.”
Brown also thinks the players will be able to draw a lot of parallels to last season in Notre Dame’s upset loss to Marshall in Week 2.
“I don’t think there’s any question they’d tell you they weren’t as excited about playing Marshall,” Brown said of the Irish. “When you stand around, you get beat. You can’t let a team like Marshall hang in there or they’ll get excited and then the pressure’s on you.”
The Irish changed quarterbacks last week after a season-ending injury to starter Tyler Buchner, and Drew Pyne led Notre Dame to a win over Cal.
“It’s really a team, in my mind, that’s 1-1,” Brown said, disregarding the Ohio State loss. “I think it’s the same old Notre Dame. They run the ball, play physically, don’t make mistakes. They’re really strong on both lines of scrimmage. You’re going to have to play a great game to beat Notre Dame.”
If the Tar Heels can stay focused on the task and finish the job, they might just start writing some history of their own on Saturday afternoon.