A couple of North Carolina nuggets as we travel the miles to a showdown in Chapel Thrill.
• The Tarheels' record is the same as ours: 4-1.
• UNC was attracting some measured respect from pundits coming into the season (and from Irish fans who, according to our preseason poll, picked the Tar Heels as the 4th-toughest game on the sked). The game versus Miami was an exciting, come-from-behind victory, but it was that big win over Connecticut just last week (on national TV) that finally vaulted UNC into the national consciousness. Today they're ranked #22 in the AP, #25 in the Harris, and the leader among "others receiving votes" in the Coaches'. It's been a running joke in the BGS breakroom that every week so far for the Irish this year has been, This is the biggest game of the season! But looking at tomorrow, I think it's finally, actually true. Facing a ranked, 4-1 team at their house is a terrific challenge, and beating them, I think, would finally unhitch the mental anchor of last year's implosion from this rapidly improving Irish team. And think of the psychic healing it would afford one Charlie Weis (and all of us, too).W McNeese St. (D1AA) 35-27
W Rutgers (1-4) 44-12
L Va. Tech (5-1) 17-20
W Miami (Fla.) (2-3) 28-24
W Connecticut (5-1) 38-12
If we win, that is.
• Can we win? To do so, we'll have contain this guy. Brandon Tate is a wonderful receiver (although our Tate has better receiving stats to date). But he's really a demon on returns, averaging 28 yards on kickoffs (20th nationally) and 25 yards on punt returns (3rd!). N.D. is only giving up ~15 yards per kickoff and ~6 yards per punt return, so those stingy averages will be put to the test tomorrow.
• Cam Sexton, backup quarterback. He's taken over for T.J. Yates who's out six weeks with a broken ankle (story link there includes a photo of the break; not for the squeamish), and is 2-0 as a starter. The Irish have actually seen Sexton before: he played against us in 2006, and he threw just one incomplete pass all game! (He also threw one pass, total). Sexton was 9-16 against Connecticut the other night with a touchdown and a pick, and over his career he's a 45% passer with more interceptions (9) than touchdowns (7).
• One thing that strikes you when you look at that Connecticut box score: North Carolina scored five touchdowns in the game, but only one of them on a drive longer than 50 yards: (1) One came by an interception that set them up on the Huskies' 15; (2) a blocked punt set them up at the 39; (3) another interception was returned for a score; and (4) another blocked punt was returned for a score. On their other drives, UNC was held to four punts, one missed field goal, and one made field goal.
This led me to look at the Tarheels' other drives on the season, and to see if they've been the beneficiaries of such fortuitous largesse (whether self-engineered or not) in other games. After all, statistically they're anemic on offense, ranking 88th-best in football (just 326 yards per game, even including the 380+ yard output against McNeese). Yet here they sit at 4-1.
Here's the scoop: North Carolina has scored 16 touchdowns on 48 drives this year (not including the McNeese game). Three were on defensive or blocked returns; the rest started on average at the Tarheels 40 yard line. They're winning on good field position, timely turnovers (12 interceptions leads the country), a couple of long touchdown passes (a 69-yarder to Tate versus Rutgers; a 74-yarder to Hakeem Nicks against Miami), and some big plays on special teams (returns, blocks, etc). (HLS has some more on the big-play action of the Light Blue this year.)
All of this is intriguing as we head into tomorrow, as the Irish are pretty stout in the areas that UNC has been exploiting: we've limited both the big return yardage by our opponents, and haven't burned ourselves with costly turnovers. Something's gotta give, right?
• Finally, a couple of minutes of video review from Butch Davis on the Irish Passing Attack.
Pat sez: "The clip he shows features something I noted when rewatching the game. When Jimmy is barking out the pre-snap talk, he steals a quick glance at Tate on the left right before hiking the ball. It was fast, but completely noticeable as he turned his head to do it. I'm positive he did it on purpose to fake out the safety. And it worked because as soon as the ball is hiked, the safety turned and started to run towards Tate. Jimmy added the pump fake for good measure before looking back to Floyd in single coverage.
"From Butch's talk, I wonder if he's going to try and keep everything in front of his defense and force ND to march down the field 5-10 yards at a time. ND definitely has the talent and weapons to do it. It will just require patience on the behalf of Haywood and Charlie.
"I think we're going to see a lot of check downs and swing passes. Also, if UNC plays back to keep everything in front, I hope that we counter by getting the ball to Tate in space...swing passes, reverses, etc. A wide receiver screen would be even more delightful."