My personal responsibilities prevented me from blogging for the Stanford game, but I found a few spare minutes to break down the upcoming battle against the North Carolina Tar Heels on Saturday afternoon.
Of all of the games on the schedule this year, this is the one that I think is the most intriguing matchup.
On the one hand, you've got a young team that is just learning how to win. After a disappointing year last year, this team is now sitting at 4-1 and on the cusp of the top 25 rankings. They've been injected with talent from a highly ranked freshman recruiting class. Also, they've been energized by the emergence of a speedy wide receiver named Tate, who has also shown some flashes in the return game as well as being a deep threat in the passing game. Their sophomore running back has shown some signs of explosiveness, but has been inconsistent. They've struggled to run the ball at times, but have made up for it with an opportunistic defense and a very good passing game. Their defense is spearheaded by a strong secondary, and an improving pass rush. They have some inconsistencies in the placekicking game, but have shown the ability to be explosive on offense, and consistent on defense.
And then there's the Irish.
That's right folks, the teams that will face off on the gridiron this week are mirror images of each other. Young, inexperienced, but loaded with talent and beginning to believe in themselves.
Should be a dogfight. Here are the keys to victory:
Protect the football.
North Carolina's offense has not been very consistent, and they were actually outgained last week by Connecticut.
However, UConn turned over the ball far too much, with three interceptions and three blocked punts.
Protect the ball, and we should be able to outscore the Tarheels.
The biggest difference between the Tarheels and the Irish are their defensive strategies. While the Irish like to blitz early and often, the Tarheels are more content to let their front four rush the passer and rely on a speedy and athletic secondary to shut down the pass.
Clausen needs to show that he can make good decisions, checking down frequently to his backs and tight ends. A couple of well placed scrambles, draws, and screens should help keep them off balance.
With enough patience, eventually the Tarheels will make a mistake, and then Jimmy can burn them deep. If he pushes too much,, too soon (especially if we get down early), that could spell trouble.
Win the field position battle.
In a game where patience and taking what the defense gives is key, we must play a sound field position game, taking advantage of our superb coverage units to contain Tate on kick and punt returns, and develop a more consistent return game of our own.
Assuming the Irish play within themselves and don't make too many mistakes, we should be able to pull out a close win in this one. Start turning the ball over in our own territory or in the red zone like we did against MSU, and it could be a long day.
North Carolina is ranked for the first time since 2001, and all of the pressure is on them to live up to the ranking, especially since they are playing at home.
The Irish were never expected to be sitting at 4-1, and have nothing to lose.
I expect the Irish to come out loose and get off to a quick start before settling into an almost West-Coast style of dink-and-dunk offense.
Carolina will battle and make it close in the end.
Notre Dame 31
North Carolina 28