For the third time in five seasons, the Tar Heels will square off with the Appalachian State Mountaineers when they take the field for their home opener on Saturday. After a huge win in Charlotte, the team will hope to prove that they can handle the praise and finally pick up a win that doesn’t come down to the final seconds against the state's premier Group of 5 program.
The team picked up the biggest win of Mack Brown’s second stint in Chapel Hill last weekend against South Carolina and did so on a night where their offense may have been the weakness. The unit was very efficient where it matters in the red zone, converting the four trips down there into 24 points, but they struggled to move the ball in the fourth quarter when they could have put the game away. Drake Maye had a nice start to the night with two impressive touchdown throws, but his two interceptions did give the Gamecocks offense life, especially his first, which was just a bad throw trying to make something out of nothing. Expect him to bounce back and get more help from a receiver group that was inconsistent in its own right. Gavin Blackwell caught a big deep pass leading to the first touchdown of the second half but had two big drops early in the game that could have made things a little more comfortable and J.J. Jones had a pretty quiet night, as well. Even Kobe Paysour had the ball go through his hands on the second interception of the night after a great start to the night. It’s hard to see them struggling like that again, especially with the knowledge that this will be the group moving forward. The tight end room looked really good on Saturday night and they should have a major impact moving forward, spearheaded by the breakout star in the room, John Copenhaver. The running back room got off to a strong start on the ground and in pass protection thanks to British Brooks and Omarion Hampton and they should only build off of that performance in Chip Lindsey’s system. The biggest pleasant surprise on this side of the ball was the performance of the offensive line who not only allowed zero sacks for just the fifth time in the second Mack Brown 2.0 era but also allowed just one tackle for a loss. South Carolina was far from the best defensive front the team will face this season, but this is a promising start after the rumors of the unit’s struggles in the month prior.
Amazingly, it’s the defense that excited Tar Heel fans the most in the first game of the season. The unit was outstanding on the crucial downs, holding South Carolina to just 4-14 on third down and 0-4 on fourth down. The defensive front put together its most dominant performance in recent memory, sacking Spencer Rattler nine times and holding the Gamecocks to -2 yards rushing on 31 carries. Kaimon Rucker was simply outstanding, earning multiple Player of the Week honors after finishing the game with 2.0 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss and guys like Amari Gainer and Beau Atkinson also made nice impressions in their first game action as Tar Heels. The interior of the unit got off to a solid start, as well, with the four-man rotation of Kevin Hester Jr., Myles Murphy, Jahvaree Ritzie and Tomari Fox looking really solid. The linebackers looked really good again in run defense and were able to get some nice pressure when they were used in blitz situations. The biggest concern exiting the first game with this side of the ball lies in the secondary after they allowed 353 yards through the air. Tayon Holloway struggled in his first career start, allowing 134 yards by himself and he was one of four starters in the defensive backfield to allow four or more catches. The good news is that Marcus Allen and D.J. Jones looked really good in the coverage snaps they played and the room as a whole was very impactful in the run game.
Special teams was another group that was a concern coming in that had a great night. Ryan Coe, who was inconsistent throughout this preseason, hit a big field goal for the team in the first half and teamed well with Ben Kiernan, who had another good night. Alijah Huzzie did a great job of fielding punts all night long, catching a few in traffic and doing a great job to draw the eyes of the South Carolina coverage team on a couple of others to induce touchbacks. The kick coverage unit was probably the one negative and they will need to be ready to go this weekend against the another dynamic returner.
The Mountaineers are looking to bounce back from one of their roughest seasons since the move to the FBS level. Last week was far from a great start against Gardner-Webb, but a huge second half offensively has some wondering if the team found something. Junior college transfer quarterback Joey Aguilar was phenomenal in the second half, throwing for 174 yards and four touchdowns after taking over on the final drive of the first half. The team’s three top receivers from a year ago are all back and Aguilar established a nice connection with all three on Saturday with touchdowns to each one. In the backfield, Nate Noel is back to handling the load in the backfield after splitting time last year and he got off to a strong start a week ago. The Mountaineers' offensive line looked good on the interior in their first game, but the young tackles really struggled, something that the Tar Heel edge rushers should be looking to take advantage of in this one.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Mountaineers, like the Tar Heels, are looking to prove last year’s matchup was a fluke. The defensive front rotated a ton of guys in the opener and found some decent success from the guys who rotated in behind the starters. At linebacker, Andrew Parker is a force in the middle, but he doesn’t have a ton of help around him at the position and it looks like a gettable group in coverage. The defensive backfield wasn’t torn apart by Gardner-Webb in terms of yards, but similar to the Tar Heels secondary, they did allow a lot of play underneath. The Tar Heels skill position players should be able to take advantage of those short passes if they are there again this week.
The Mountaineers' special teams unit is exactly on the same level as the one the Tar Heels faced a week ago. The strength of the unit has to be kick returner Milan Tucker, who averaged 28.2 yards per return a year ago. At punt returner, the team is in search of a new starter after minimal production from the spot last season. Placekicker Michael Hughes is back, but he missed three of his twelve field goals in 2022 and missed one in the opener. True freshman punter Mitchell Lake wasn’t great in the opener but was still an improvement over what the team got from the position a year ago.
Off. PPG: 31.0 (T-66th)
Off. PYPG: 269.0 (53rd)
Off. RYPG: 168.0 (T-55th)
Off. TYPG: 437.0 (T-49th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 61.5%
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 1.0 (T-1st)
Sacks Allowed: 0.0 (T-1st)
Def. PPG: 17.0 (T-55th)
Def. PYPG: 353.0 (123rd)
Def. RYPG: -2.0 (2nd)
Def. TYPG: 351.0 (77th)
Def. 3rd Down %: 28.6% (T-40th)
Tackles for A Loss: 16.0 (2nd)
Sacks: 9.0 (1st)
Interceptions: 0 (T-73rd)
Turnover Margin: -2 (T-111th)
Penalties Per Game: 7.0 (T-79th)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 49.0 (T-67th)
Off. PPG: 45.0 (T-23rd)
Off. PYPG: 247.0 (63rd)
Off. RYPG: 147.0 (67th)
Off. TYPG: 394.0 (T-68th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 30.7% (T-98th)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 6.0 (T-73rd)
Sacks Allowed: 2.0 (T-76th)
Def. PPG: 24.0 (T-79th)
Def. PYPG: 221.0 (T-76th)
Def. RYPG: 139.0 (85th)
Def. TYPG: 360.0 (82nd)
Def. 3rd Down %: 44.4% (T-100th)
Tackles for A Loss: 3.0 (T-110th)
Sacks: 0.0 (T-112th)
Interceptions: 2 (T-11th)
Turnover Margin: +3 (T-4th)
Penalties Per Game: 2.0 (T-5th)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 20.0 (T-11th)
Keys to the Game
Get Off to a Fast Start
App State is about as familiar as any Power 5 program in the country with pulling upsets and one of the biggest keys to doing that is staying in the game early. The best way for the Tar Heels to avoid a close game late against a team as dangerous as the Mountaineers can be is to establish an early cushion. Getting a couple of early touchdowns and combining that with some defensive stops should be enough to give the team that early separation, something they should be able to build on after that.
Limit the Self-Inflicted Mistakes
One of the other things that fuels upsets from Group of 5 teams is self-inflected mistakes. The Tar Heels have to take care of the football and not give an App State that created three turnovers a week ago the momentum that was there to be taken a week ago by South Carolina. The Tar Heels will also need to avoid the penalty issues that allowed the Mountaineers to hang around last year.
Win on the Money Downs
A big part of the Tar Heels' success in Week 1 was that they were simply able to win on the downs that matter the most. As we told you above, the defense was simply tremendous on third and fourth down and the team thrived in those areas on the other side of the ball. Gardner-Webb had some success in these areas a week ago and if the Tar Heels can just be better than the Runnin’ Bulldogs were a week ago defensively on fourth down, they should be able to elicit a different end result.
OUT- DeAndre Boykins (lower-body), Lejond Cavazos (lower body), R.J. Grigsby (lower body), Malaki Hamrick (lower body), Julien Randolph (lower body), Tez Walker (eligibility)
QUEST- Nate McCollum (lower-body), John Copenhaver (upper-body)
OUT- Ryan Burger (finger)
Projected Starting Lineups
Location: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, NC
Time: 5:15 PM
TV: ACC Network
Radio: Tar Heel Sports Network (check local affiliates)