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Notre Dame Football

6 Thoughts on a Thursday

November 26, 2020

Football is more than just a game. It’s a violent sport where collisions take place on every play and injuries can happen at any moment. No one is more aware of the potential to be injured on any play than offensive and defensive linemen.

That’s why a season ending injury to Jarrett Patterson hurts for Notre Dame, but shouldn’t have been unexpected. Losing Tommy Kraemer for a week (or more) with appendicitis was not something that could have been anticipated, although he has been playing banged up all season.

Jeff Quinn and the Irish coaching staff have been through this before. They lost Alex Bars and played without Kraemer for a game in 2018. Last season they had a double whammy of losing Kraemer and Robert Hainsey in back to back weeks and had to finish the season with two new faces on the offensive line.

One of those players who had to step in last season was Josh Lugg at right tackle. This season he’ll be stepping in at guard for Kraemer, but Lugg is a starting caliber player at both spots. He was solid down the stretch in 2019 and there is no reason to doubt he’ll be anything but that against North Carolina (and possibly beyond).

Zeke Correll is a different story as he has not played any important snaps before this upcoming game. Neither had Lugg last year, though. We’ll have to wait and see how much of a drop off there is without Patterson, who was the top center in the ACC this season according to PFF.

This is a different situation and these are different players who are out, but it should be noted that Quinn was able to get the line to play well without his starting right side to finish last season. In the five games without Kraemer and Hainsey, the line gave up pressures on 28.1% of drop backs and had a 1.8% sack rate. That’s elite. They gave up only three sacks in those five games.

The team also averaged 5.5 yards per carry (the season average was 4.92).

If Correll and Lugg were stepping into a situation where they had to play Dexter Lawrence and Christian Wilkins, it would be a serious problem for Notre Dame. UNC does not have any game wreckers on the interior of their defensive line. They also don’t play very well against the run.

They are 99th in the country in the country at allowing runs of four yards or more. They are 120th in Stuff Rate (tackles made for zero yards or less against the run). UNC also allows 4.99 YPC on 1st down (89th) and PFF graded them as the fourth worst run defense in college football this season.

When considering the opponent, it would be a surprise if Notre Dame didn’t run the ball well on Friday. Protecting Ian Book is another matter and I’m sure defensive coordinator Jay Bateman will try to attack Lugg and Correll in protection with A-gap pressure and stunts.

Of course, if Notre Dame is getting into favorable down and distance because of the running game, then it might not matter.

2. After the FEI ratings were updated, North Carolina is now 81st on defense. They haven’t exactly played a long list of great offenses either. Notre Dame will be the best they have faced so far. That and their lack of success stopping the run is why I think this could be a game where time of possession does matter.

Notre Dame has the backs to grind down a defense like UNC’s have done the same to numerous defenses this season (the Irish are ninth in time of possession per game).

Normally I would say that time of possession is not a valuable statistic. Penn State is 23rd and it hasn’t helped them at all. In this particular game, though, holding onto the ball means keeping UNC’s explosive offense off the field.

Limiting their possessions could end up being as important in this game as anything the defense does to stop them.

3. I know that UNC will be getting back some players from injury this week. The bye helped them get healthy at corner and receiver. If you look at that and then consider Notre Dame will be down two offensive lineman, it would be easy to see how the Irish were unlucky with that trade off.

I do think that getting extra time off for Kyren Williams and C’Bo Flemister is something that should be discussed more, though. These two are going to have to run physical and UNC hasn’t exactly tackled well. Having healthier versions of Williams and Flemister could end up being very important for the Notre Dame offense if they are going to expose the UNC defense.

4. Kyren Williams has been a revelation for Notre Dame this season. I know many are excited about the top three backs for the Irish this season, but can you imagine if they had two players producing like Williams?

That’s basically what UNC has in their backfield.

Javonte Williams and Michael Carter are both averaging 100-yards rushing per game. They combined for almost 60-yards receiving as well. It’s incredible what these two are doing and it’s been pointed out that from a numbers perspective, they are right there with Reggie Bush and Lendale White as a tandem.

That’s a lot to have to deal with for Clark Lea on top of an outstanding group of wide receivers and a quarterback who is averaging over 10 yards per attempt. I don’t think there is anything as interesting to me as how the UNC running game is going to do against Notre Dame. The Irish have one of the best run defenses in the country (1st in Stuff Rate and are 13th in opportunity rate (percentage of runs for four yards or less). No back has rushed for more than 70 yards against them this season and that includes Travis Etienne (1.56 yards per carry) and Javian Hawkins (3.4 YPC).

They are two of the best backs in the country. If you take it back to 2019, it’s been 14 games since they last gave up more than 70 to a back on the ground. AJ Dillon and Breece Hall are including in that too.

Maybe Javonte Williams or Michael Carter will go off in this game because one of them always seems to do so. Them doing so would break a long streak of Lea’s defense shutting down some pretty good running backs.

5. Javonte Williams, Iowa State’s Breece Hall, and Minnesota’s Mohamed Ibrahim all have a shot to be named All-Americans this season. Other than that, what do the three have in common?

None of them were ranked in the top-1000 prospects in the country.

Those are three massive misses from the recruiting sites. All three are playing at Power 5 programs so it’s not like they slipped through the cracks, but clearly they were underrated. If you get a chance to watch each of their senior highlights from when they were recruits, it’s head-scratching to think they were ranked so low.

Javian Hawkins was also not ranked in the top-1000 recruits in the country. Memphis had a run of lower ranked backs who were big time playmakers. The list of backs who were overlooked as recruits who proved to be studs is long.

I’m not exactly sure why there is such a huge discrepancy between backs who are elite in college who aren’t considered elite as recruits. Maybe it’s that the 7on7/camp circuit is not an appropriate way to evaluate them compared to receivers or defensive backs. Whatever the reason is, I’d say that running back is one position where there should be less trust in the rankings.

That’s something worth remembering for anyone who may be upset if Notre Dame isn’t able to land Donovan Edwards as a second back and ends up taking someone who isn’t considered the same caliber of prospect.

6. Notre Dame’s defense will get some stops against UNC. Wake Forest stopped them on five of six drives at one point so a much better defense for Notre Dame should be able to stop UNC as well. It’s going to be about getting UNC off the field on 3rd down and getting them into as many 3rd and longs as possible.

Florida State did that and it was a huge reason why they won that game. UNC was 0 for 6 on 3rd and 7+.

The Irish 3rd down defense has been elite this season. They are only allowing conversions on 25.96% of attempts and a big part of that is the negative plays Notre Dame gets on early downs. They are sixth in the country in Havoc Rate and, as mentioned before, 1st in Stuff Rate. Getting UNC into as many of those 3rd and longs as possible will be critical in order to get stops from Lea’s group.

FSU did that. They also dominated the line of scrimmage, which is not something that was expected. The pressure they put on Howell changed the dynamic of that game. He was only 5 of 14 when pressured, was sacked four times, and was forced to scramble three other times. They had a 47.7% pressure rate on Howell’s drop backs.

For all the talk about the great skill players on UNC, their line is not great. Left tackle Asim Richards is one of the worst tackles in the ACC and has given up six sacks on the season.

Notre Dame needs to be around that pressure rate number on Friday. If they can do that and force Howell to beat them on 3rd and long, the Irish will be awful tough to beat.

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