Second-ranked Notre Dame is moving closer to playing for its first-ever conference championship and returning to the College Football Playoff. The next challenge is slowing No. 25 North Carolina’s high-scoring offense.
The Fighting Irish enter Friday’s game sitting alone atop the Atlantic Coast Conference standings after surrendering their long-cherished football independence for this season amid the coronavirus pandemic. And as it pursues a spot in the league championship game Dec. 19, Notre Dame (8-0, 7-0 ACC) sits at No. 2 in Tuesday night’s first set of CFP rankings.
The visit to the Tar Heels represents its last scheduled game against a ranked opponent as the league enters final weeks filled with a growing number of rescheduled dates.
“Certainly we want to take care of what’s in front of us, so what’s important for us is North Carolina,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “But we know what the schedule looks like.”
Notre Dame has its Nov. 7 win against No. 4 Clemson, which played without star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. The Fighting Irish host one-win Syracuse next weekend then visit Wake Forest on Dec. 12 in a game postponed from September due to coronavirus issues within the Notre Dame program.
The Tar Heels (6-2, 6-2, No. 19 CFP) are trying to keep alive outside hopes of reaching the ACC title game with two losses. Their strength is a prolific Sam Howell-led offense ranking fourth in the Bowl Subdivision in total offense (563.4 yards) and 10th in scoring (43.1).
UNC coach Mack Brown said Friday is a chance to measure up with a national-title contender, saying: “In this game, the pressure’s really on Notre Dame.”
“It’s obvious we’ve made a lot of progress,” said Brown, in Year 2 of his second stint leading the Tar Heels. “Are we ready to beat the No. 2 team in the country? Who knows? But it’s a great a challenge for us."
Some other things to know about Friday’s UNC-Notre Dame game:
Notre Dame’s defense ranks fourth against the run (85.1 yards), ninth in total defense (304.1) and 11th in scoring defense (16.6).
Only two opponents have cracked 100 yards rushing against Notre Dame. That will be a stat to watch considering the Tar Heels operate best when Javonte Williams (108.5) and Michael Carter (100.9) move the chains to complement Howell in the passing game.
“We definitely understand this is a big opportunity for our team,” Howell said.
North Carolina could get a boost if center Brian Anderson, receiver Beau Corrales and cornerback Storm Duck return from lower-body injuries.
Anderson started the first seven games but missed the Nov. 14 win against Wake Forest. Corrales has missed four straight games while Duck has missed six in a row. All have practiced this week and are gametime decisions.
Notre Dame’s offensive line will have two new starters.
Sophomore center Zeke Correll will make his first career start in place of Jarrett Patterson, who broke his foot against Boston College and had season-ending surgery last Friday. That was the same day that right guard Tommy Kraemer underwent an emergency appendectomy.
Senior Josh Lugg, a backup at right tackle to Robert Hainsey, takes over for Kraemer. He started games last season when both Hainsey and Kraemer were injured.
Notre Dame’s full-strength line recently made the midseason honor roll for the Joe Moore Award recognizing the “toughest, most physical line in the country.”
Ian Book’s path to leading the Notre Dame offense began in this 2017 matchup.
The graduate quarterback made his first career start that October as a sophomore in UNC’s Kenan Stadium for the injured Brandon Wimbush, leading the Fighting Irish to a 33-10 win.
Book is 28-3 as a starter and needs one more win to tie the program record for most wins as a starting quarterback.
“He does an unbelievable job keeping his head on his shoulders and not letting the stuff get to him, whether it’s good or it’s bad,” receiver Ben Skowronek said.
UNC is capable of digging out of big holes.
The Tar Heels rallied from 21 down in the third quarter in the Wake Forest win to match the biggest comeback in school history. All eight of UNC’s losses since the start of last year have come by seven or fewer points.
“They don’t go away,” Kelly said.
AP freelancer John Fineran in South Bend, Indiana, contributed to this report.
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