Game operations department ready for Saturday and Tar Heels game vs. Notre Dame: parking concession staffing boosted post-Covid, guards have brand new ticket scanners and tailgating consortium Revel XP has five years to showcase tent villages around Kenan Stadium for its biggest ever year. Former Tar Heel offensive lineman Harris Barton even helps organize a rally for Tar Heel men of letters in the quad around the steeple.
Franklin Street retailers are ready: Sutton’s Drug Store is stocked with burgers, and Alumni Hall is ready with jerseys, hats, face paint and temporary tattoos. The Chapel Hill Downtown Partnership blocks Henderson Street from 12:30 p.m. Saturday with live music, games and food from Linda’s Bar & Grill.
Lower-tier seats from various online ticket brokers cost four to five times face value. And this weather is sublime: seventy-six and sunny for Saturday afternoon in the southern part of the sky.
“There’s definitely more buzz on campus, you’re playing a national program, a program that everyone knows about,” Tar Heel goaltender Gio Biggers said.
“Notre Dame is a program rich in history,” added defensive tackle Ray Vohasek. “They have movies, Rudy, who hasn’t watched that stuff? It’s exciting to play them for the third year in a row. ABC game, that’s what you wish for growing up as a kid.”
Hors d’oeuvres for a home opener against a SWAC opponent and road trips to Boone and Atlanta to take on the Sun Belt teams have been dispatched. Now, the main course of the 2022 football season begins with the arrival of ACC pseudo-partner Notre Dame at Kenan Stadium this weekend and then Virginia Tech the following Saturday.
The Tar Heels have had an open date to rest and rehabilitate a handful of injured players, self-screen and continue to tweak what works (they’re No. 4 nationally in scoring offense and No. 1 in kicking of clearance) and developing what has been top-down (the defense has been solid at times, porous at others). And coach McBrown and his staff hammered home the idea of finishing– when you are ahead 41-21 against Appalachian State and 21-3 against Georgia State, seal the deal.
“Those two games we could have taken over,” Brown said. “We had the momentum from both games. You have to go finish, put your foot on the accelerator, make a stoppage and play as a team.
“I’m happy to be 3-0, but we still have to grow.”
And what better litmus test than the Fighting Irish, a national brand and team that has left a sour taste in the mouths of the Tar Heels for two consecutive years? Two years ago, in the depths of this strange Covid season and with barely 3,535 spectators at Kenan Stadium, the Irish carried the Tar Heels along the line of scrimmage, dominated the second half and took a victory 31-17. Last year at South Bend, the Irish won by a 44-34 margin, with a touchdown after the Tar Heels stopped the Irish on fourth down, only for a face mask penalty to resuscitate the player . Carolina was within four points in the fourth quarter but gave up a 91-yard touchdown run as Irish tailback Kyren Williams broke several tackles.
“We need to be tougher, play more confident in the fourth quarter and finish stronger,” Brown said. “We weren’t able to do that. They are very, very physical on both lines of scrimmage. It will be a great test for us.”
Carolina’s offense since Brown took charge of the program in 2019 and hired Phil Longo as coordinator generated prodigious numbers – witnessed an average of 37 points per game from 2019-21 for the most prolific three-year streak in school history, evidenced by the Miami surge on 778 yards in 2020. What’s remarkable across three games is that this year’s offense essentially represents the second cycle of players turning around after three years of making hay with talented players like Sam HowellMichael Carter, Javonte Williams, Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome.
First-year student Drake May deftly took over at quarterback. The Tar Heels use a tight triumvirate of Bryson Nesbit, Kamari Morales and John Copenhagen to account for about a third of their reception output. Carolina used the transfer portal wisely by finding two starters along the line in the center Corey Gaynor (Miami) and Spencer Rolland (Harvard). Young players have started to grow wings at skill positions including slot machine receiver Kobe Paysour (14 catches and two touchdowns) and tailback Omarion Hampton (76 yards per game and five scores).
And they did it without receivers Josh Downs and Anthony Green and cap British Brooks. Downs and Green are set to return to action, while Brooks was out for the year to an injury in training camp.
“Josh is the best player on our team,” Brown said. “Anthony Green is an NFL wide receiver. To lose them more British Brooks, we shot that side of the ball. I’m proud of us and our players for not making excuses. And we recruited well enough that some talented young players showed up. »
Meanwhile, the defense picked up a few chunks as they gave up a 75 percent completion percentage to Florida A&M, a 40-point fourth quarter to App State, and an 18-point third quarter to Georgia State. But he also had some great stretches, stopping App State on the lows and intercepting a pass during a solid third quarter and closing out Georgia State’s game by forcing four straight punts.
“The App game, we had two good quarters and a terrible fourth quarter”, defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said. “The Georgia State game, we had a bad third quarter. We’re looking to find the four quarter game. We look at why they happen and use them as teaching moments. Knowledge is the power, right? We know what the problems were and we have the ability to solve them.
“Our best game is definitely ahead of us, and I don’t think it will be long before we play that best game.”
Breakdowns varied across the gamut. Unsuitable gaps led to long runs. Poor eye discipline and lapses in communication contributed to some big passes. Vohasek noted that “sloppy footwork” occasionally popped up. Biggers added that he credits the offensive coordinators at App State and Georgia State for showing some wrinkles they haven’t shown before.
“I think we have the talent to be a really good defensive end,” Vohasek said. “We haven’t played to our standards at times. And we hear what’s going on. I just use that as motivation.”
Vohasek grew up in the Chicago suburb of McHenry, just a three-hour drive around Lake Michigan to South Bend. He knows the Midwestern mentality of Irish football fighting and marvels at their skill in the scrum field. “I consider them ‘O-Line U.’,” he says.
So he understands when Brown notes how much more mature, deep and physically tough the Irish were in winning the last two years, especially the 2020 game when an otherwise tough Tar Heel offense could only muster 32 yards rushing and 78 total yards in the second half. Carolina is now two deep along the defensive front and started the year by starting five seniors or graduate students along the offensive line.
“I think we’ve made great progress, I think we match it from a physical point of view,” Vohasek said. “Two years ago when we played them, they were an old team. This team that faced Alabama in the playoffs was basically made up of seniors at all levels. Notre Dame is proud of its O lines and D. That’s how they win games. But I think we did a good job, and I think we’ll find out on Saturday how far we’ve come.”
From the day in late January when the 2022 ACC schedule was announced, Brown has easily segmented the first three games into a sort of “mini-season”: introducing a new quarterback to replace Howell, leaving Chizik and the new secondary coach Charles Warren finding their ballast, bolstering the players’ internal leadership which he felt hadn’t been sharp enough in a 6-6 regular season the previous year.
Move to 3-0 with a week off. Mission accomplished.
“Now just to get to 4-0 would be a huge achievement for us,” Vohasek said. “Notre Dame has some great players. Anyone can beat anyone if you follow college football these days.”
Chapel Hill writer Lee Pace is in his 33rd year writing about Carolina’s football program under the “Extra Points” banner. He is the author of “Football in a Forest” and sideline reporting on Tar Heel Sports Network broadcasts. Follow him on @LeePaceTweet and write to him at [email protected]