This ongoing series examines Notre Dame’s 2014 opponents as they stand after the spring. We’re going down Notre Dame’s schedule, so next up: The North Carolina Tar Heels.
Date: 3:30 p.m. Oct. 11 at Notre Dame Stadium.
Series history: Notre Dame leads, 16-2.
Last meeting: 2008 — North Carolina won, 29-24.
2013 common opponents: Pittsburgh (Notre Dame lost, 28-21; North Carolina won, 34-27).
2013 in a nutshell
North Carolina was the victim of a frontloaded schedule, falling to South Carolina in the season opener and skidding to losses against Georgia Tech, East Carolina (a 55-30 shocker), Virginia Tech and Miami. In that storm, the Tar Heels only managed to beat one team: Middle Tennessee. UNC pulled a 180 in the second half of the season, winning five of its next six. Of course, those wins were over Boston College, an injury-riddled North Carolina State, a Virginia team that finished 2-10 and Old Dominion, but the Heels did beat a Pittsburgh team that beat Notre Dame, nearly upset ACC runner-up Duke (a 27-25 loss) and won its bowl game against Cincinnati.
Previous pre-season previews:
Players/positions to watch
- Marquise Williams, quarterback: Williams stepped in after starting quarterback Bryn Renner went down with a shoulder injury, helping pull North Carolina out of the early-season free fall it was in. Williams started six games for the Tar Heels, finishing 4-2. His passing game is fair (1,698 yards, 58.1 percent accuracy, 15 touchdowns, 6 interceptions), but his true potency lies in his athleticism. Williams led the team in rushing (106 carries, 560 yards and seven touchdowns.
But the starting spot isn’t his for the taking. Unlike Williams, redshirt freshmen Mitch Trubisky was recruited by head coach Larry Fedora specifically for this offense. Fedora could also play both quarterbacks this year, balancing Tubisky’s accuracy with Williams’ mobility.
- Ryan Switzer, wide receiver/punt returner: Another young player who bloomed late last season, Switzer wrapped up the season with 15 catches for 215 yards and and two touchdowns in the final four weeks. Paired with the already-established Quinshad Davis, North Carolina could have quite the one-two punch at reciever. As effective as Switzer was on offense, he was even more deadly on special teams. Switzer returned five punt returns for touchdowns (85, 65, 61, 64, and 86 yards) in the last five games of his freshman season. By comparison Notre Dame has totaled 521 punt return yards since the 2009 season.
- Norkeithus Otis, bandit linebacker: Otis and rushing mate Kareem Martin combined for 35½ tackles for loss and 20 sacks last season — comprising the only real pass rush the Tar Heels had. Now Martin is gone and Otis will need someone else with whom to wreak havoc. On his own, Otis managed 50 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 8½ sacks, and 9 quarterback hurries in 2013.
This game couldn’t come at a worse time for Notre Dame — wedged between a home game against Stanford and the road trip to defending champ Florida State.
North Carolina has been on the verge of a great season for the past four years, either starting or finishing strong but never quite piecing together the whole package. Now the Heels return Williams and 13 other starters from last year for Fedora’s third year in charge of the program.
Still, North Carolina has a lot of question marks on defense with the loss of half its rushing attack and holes in the secondary. And until they’re answered, this game goes to Notre Dame.