A third meeting with Appalachian State in five years on Saturday brought a third back-and-forth affair that both fanbases won’t soon forget. After looking like a different team a week ago, especially defensively, Saturday's performance looked very similar to what we have seen in recent years under Mack Brown. The team was forced to lean heavily on its offense in the second half after a slow start to escape with a 40-34 win in double overtime in the rubber match with the Mountaineers. Here is a look at our biggest takeaways from Saturday's nail-bitting win.
Nothing Is Easy When Playing App State
The three games that the Tar Heels have played against Appalachian State since Mack Brown returned to Chapel Hill have been decided by a combined 11 points and have all been decided within the final ten seconds of each ball game. In each of the last two years, the Tar Heel defense, which didn't play well in the games up until the final defensive play, stepped up when they needed to and made the plays to pull out the victory. The two teams have met three times in the last five years and I think both fanbases can agree that a little break is needed because these games are taking years off their life.
Running Game is the Strength of This Offense Right Now
There are a lot of Tar Heel fans angry with the play calling from offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey on Saturday night, but the reasoning behind it is ridiculous. Being furious with the way he called the first two drives is completely understandable and even Brown in his postgame said that he told Lindsey they needed to shelf the “Ram” package after it failed on two crucial downs early on. The discontent from many, though, lies with the amount of times that the Tar Heel ran the football despite the running game putting up their best performance since the 2021 win over Wake Forest. Omarion Hampton’s 234 yards rushing yards were the most by a Tar Heel running back since Michael Carter and Javonte Williams both did reach that number against Miami back in 2020 and were the main reason the team was able to move the ball throughout the night. Even Drake Maye was finding yards in the ground last in game. The running game simply could not be stopped in this one no matter who was carrying the ball and going away from it probably would have lost you the game. I get that some fans are worried about how this is hurting Maye’s Heisman stock, but the most important element of the Heisman Trophy race at this point is the win-loss record. The Tar Heel offense did what they had to do to put up points and ultimately win the game on Saturday and no one should be mad about that.
Passing Game is Still a Work in Progress
Aside from the fact that Appalachian State couldn’t stop the Tar Heel running game, the struggles of the Tar Heel passing game were another reason the team leaned on the ground so heavily and will probably continue to do so for the time being. Outside of Kobe Paysour, this team lacks consistency from their pass catchers, who simply haven’t been able to create separation often enough in the first two weeks. This has cause to the staff to rely on more tunnel screens and quick throws to the outside that bank on a receiver making guys miss in open space to move the football through the air, which isn’t happening consistently enough either. This offense sorely misses its two transfer receivers right now (Nate McCollum played but only played nine snaps), but it needs the others to emerge that can be consistent threats down in, down out.
Defense Severly Regressed
It was a week of praise for the Tar Heel defense after a tremendous performance to kick off the season, but we were brought back to reality on that side of the ball on Saturday evening. A week after piling up nine sacks and 16.0 tackles for loss and allowing -2 rushing yards to South Carolina, the Tar Heels were gashed for 219 rushing yards and had just four tackles behind the line of scrimmage. The defensive line that was so dominant in Charlotte was pushed around the majority of the night and struggled to get pressure in the face of Joey Aguilar, allowing him to pick apart a secondary that continues to be carved up in that intermediate level of the passing game. The most drastic difference, however, may have been the what they did on the crucial downs. After holding South Carolina to 4-14 on third downs and 0-4 on fourth downs, the Tar Heel defense allowed six third-down conversions of seven or more yards and two fourth conversions that led to ten points for Appalachian State. Expecting a performance similar what we saw from this defense a week ago in Charlotte throughout this season was probably a bit much, but this looked way too much like what we saw from this unit last year under Chizik. The hope is that this was a humbling moment for this defense and that they can nestle somewhere in between the two performances that we have seen from them in the first two weeks for the rest of the season.
Going from Good to Great is a Process
Going from good to great is the motto of this year's Tar Heel team after the finish to last season and as they found out on Saturday, they still have a lot of work to do to live up to that. The Tar Heels were outhustled and outworked for the majority of the first half on Saturday, looking sluggish after the week of flowers they received for beating South Carolina. This is something that we have seen far too often from this program in the past decade or so against less talented teams and if you want to be great it simply can’t keep happening. Consistency from week to week is the name of the game for great teams and right now that just isn’t where things are at for the Tar Heel football program.