It’s been anything but the season that North Carolina head coach Mack Brown was expecting.
UNC (4-3, 3-3 ACC) opened the season ranked No. 10 in the AP Poll. The offense, despite losing key contributors to the NFL in running backs Javonte Williams and Michael Carter and receiver Dyami Brown, looked to be potent once more. After all, junior quarterback Sam Howell was returning to guide the Tar Heels offense. This time, he was coming back as one of the top five Heisman candidates.
Seven games in, you won’t find Howell on any Heisman shortlists. And you won’t find North Carolina on the national radar. Instead, they’ve drifted away. The Tar Heels have been a steady roller coaster all season long as evident in their last two games. A 35-25 loss to Florida State in Chapel Hill seemed to sink the spirit of UNC. Then came a thrilling 45-42 win over Miami. A game that UNC had to have. They did and the bye week provided some rest.
But now, it’s Notre Dame week. A matchup with the No. 11 Fighting Irish (6-1) in South Bend at 7:30 on NBC looms, with the Tar Heels a 3.5-point underdog per FanDuel Sportsbook. That means Brown will need things cleaned up to come out the victor.
“We want to continue to run the ball better. When you do, your protection is good. When you’re not running it, you can’t protect,” Brown said on his radio show on Monday night. “And getting the ball out of Sam’s hands faster, we’ve talked about that a lot. On defense, I think probably the most important thing is situations… Play better situational football and I think that’ll get us where we need to go.”
North Carolina has run the ball well this season, with Howell turning into more of dual threat. That, or he’s been running for his life behind an offensive line that’s allowed 3.9 sacks per game, 125th in the nation. Regardless, Howell has scampered his way to 494 yards with five touchdowns. They are up against a stout Notre Dame front, however, that is allowing just 125.6 rushing yards per game, 34th in the nation.
Elsewhere, Brown is hoping for one trend to come to an end: massive penalties. UNC has committed 22 penalties for 212 yards in its last two games, last in the ACC over that span. Brown has had his issues with some of the calls but will hope his team can stay disciplined on Saturday night.
“Penalties, we were doing so well with penalties then the last couple of weeks we’ve dropped off,” Brown said. “I will say that we sent a number of penalties into the conference office and not all of the ones that we had were legit. Let’s just put it that way.”
Should UNC pull off the upset, Brown won’t be apologizing for the win.
“I had people come up, and I hate when people say a win’s a win,” Brown said. “It really is but you don’t have to tell me. I will never apologize for a win. We did some great things in the Miami game. In all three phases we got better. We did some awful things that we’ve got to get fixed. That’s the way it’s gonna be with every college football game.”