CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Notre Dame has leaned on its running game to spark a turnaround from a four-win season. Now the 21st-ranked Fighting Irish bring one of the nation's best ground attacks to face a North Carolina run defense that has struggled for stops.
Notre Dame (4-1) enters today's game at UNC ranked second nationally with 20 rushing touchdowns, third in yards per carry (7.14) and seventh in rushing yards per game (301.4). Those numbers are all up significantly from last season, and coach Brian Kelly points to that success as a reason why the Irish has been one of the nation's best red-zone offenses, too.
"I think it has a lot to do with the running of the football and then what we're setting up off of the run, more so than trying to take shots on first down in the end zone," Kelly said. "We're staying ahead of the chains there."
Junior running back Josh Adams has led that attack, ranking third nationally by averaging 131.6 yards per game. Quarterback Brandon Wimbush — whose role is in question today due to a foot injury — is second at better than 80 yards per game.
Compare that production to 2016, when Notre Dame averaged just 163.6 yards rushing and had 18 touchdowns on the ground for all last season. The Irish averaged about 31 points per game, roughly 10 points fewer than this season.
"I think as an offense, I think we know we can do more," Adams said. "I think we have guys that want to do more. We're never just satisfied with where we're at. We always want to do better. We always want to improve. I don't think we're even close to being at the level we know we can be at."
Notre Dame could be set for a big afternoon against North Carolina (1-4), which ranks 112th nationally by allowing nearly 222 yards rushing per game. The Tar Heels surrendered 403 yards rushing to Georgia Tech's triple-option attack last week.
"You're going to have to do the best job we can," UNC coach Larry Fedora said. "We're going to have to be very disciplined in our gaps. Our guys are going to have to get off the blocks and our guys are going to have to get multiple hats to the ball. We need to create turnovers and limit their possessions."
Here are some other things to know about today's Notre Dame-UNC game:
WIMBUSH'S STATUS: Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly has said he won't name a starting quarterback until kickoff as starter Brandon Wimbush deals with a right foot strain. Wimbush has been limited in practice while sharing reps with Ian Book.
TURNOVER EDGE: Notre Dame has a clear edge on opponents when it comes to dealing with turnovers. The Irish is plus-6 in turnover margin this season, has scored 70 points off 11 turnovers by opponents and allowed just three points off their five turnovers.
SURRATT'S DEVELOPMENT: Redshirt freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt has seized control of the starting job for the Tar Heels, though they're coming off their worst performance (247 yards) of the season at Georgia Tech. The Tar Heels could use more of Surratt's big-play ability through the air and on the ground.
BANGED-UP TAR HEELS: North Carolina has an injury problem. The Tar Heels had 13 players listed on last week's injury report as being out with season-ending injuries, including starters such as receiver Austin Proehl and linebacker Andre Smith.
MISSING MOMENTUM: The Tar Heels have been struggling dating to the final month of last season. North Carolina has lost seven of nine games since beating Georgia Tech last November, which was the program's last win against a power-conference opponent.