Saturday is an important day for the Tar Heels’ 2023 season. The team might be playing a middle of the road FCS team in Campbell, but coming off of two straight head-shaking losses, this team needs a performance that can help swing this season back in the right direction. If they can pick up a comfortable win and give this defense some needed rest, it could be exactly what this team needs as they head into the home stretch of the season.
The Tar Heels are fading quickly after a 6-0 start to the season and they desperately need a good performance all around to stabilize things. The Tar Heel offense did everything they could a week ago to give the team a chance to win, but unfortunately it wasn’t enough. Quarterback Drake Maye bounced back from an inaccurate night against Virginia and continues what has been a really strong junior season for himself. With the offensive line relatively healthy now, the strength of this offense, though, has become the running game led by the conference's leading rusher. Omarion Hampton has already run for 923 yards this season thanks to three games with more than 150 yards rushing and also done some nice things catching the ball out of the backfield. Even Maye is starting to become more involved in the run game and is making it easier for this team to move the ball down the field when they lean into it. The running game will need to continue to carry this offense with the wide receiving corps that is dealing with injuries issues. Both Tez Walker and Nate McCollum are banged up and could miss this game which would leave the team without three of their top four receivers in this game. J.J. Jones and tight end Bryson Nesbit should be expected to see a lot of targets this weekend regardless of if those play or not. Speaking of a banged up unit, the Tar Heel offensive line has been beaten and battered in the last two games, leading to plenty of mixing and matching. The good news is that the group's play hasn’t suffered, but they need them to get healthy for this stretch run and hopefully this weekend can provide them the opportunity to do that.
Defensively, the team has fallen off a cliff the last two weeks. They are coming off of one of the most embarrassing fourth quarter performances in program history where they allowed 246 rushing yards and three touchdowns. Head coach Mack Brown compared it to last year’s fourth quarter against Appalachian State, which was where the team’s defensive issues really stemmed from. Hopefully things won’t get that bad again this season, but there is no telling. The defensive line, especially the edge rushers, have had a better season rushing the passer, but really struggled to win on run downs. Unless they can start winning up front more consistently, it will be much of the same from this unit down the stretch, putting all the pressure on the offense. They aren’t the only unit on this struggling right now. The defensive backs have been picked on at times the last few weeks after a strong start to the season. Both Alijah Hizzie and Marcus Allen had tough nights in Atlanta that they have to recover from, but the bigger concern is Don Chapman starting to let up big plays over the top. The linebacking corps is still the clear strength of the unit, but even they need to recover from a rough night a week ago against Georgia Tech.
Special teams have continued to be a disaster. The punt coverage unit allowed their third block in the five games on Saturday which is absolutely unprecedented. If that wasn’t bad enough, kicker Noah Burnette missed an important field goal late in the game, something that plagued him a year ago down the stretch of the season. The kick coverage unit remains a mess, too, still allowing the second-most yards per return in all of the FBS. The shining light is that the kick return game got a boost from Doc Chapman the other night and Tom Maginness showed some nice promise in a bounce-back effort.
The Fighting Camels enter the game as a middle-of-the-road FCS team, but Mike Minter’s squad still has some solid pieces that can make plays, primarily on the offensive side of the ball. Quarterback Hajj-Malik Williams is having a really strong season through the air and on the ground will test this defense if they aren’t careful. The Fighting Camels also boast a very solid run game that rotates three different capable ball-carriers. Naquari Rogers and LaMagea McDowell will handle the bulk of the carries, but Chris McKay Jr. is averaging 7.4 yards per carry and has proven he can be a big play threat. The wide receiving corps has a trio of guys who are having strong years. VJ Wilkins and Chaney Fitzgerald have been the steady producers for the team, while Jalen Kelsey has been the big play threat. The offensive line has had a really good season to this point, especially tackle Tyler McLellan who anchors the unit.
Like the Tar Heels, the issues for this Campbell team lay on the defensive side of the football where the team allows over 400 yards of total offense and 31 points per game. The secondary has been the best part of this unit this season, led by cornerback Keevan Bailey, who has allowed just 8 of 29 targets to be caught. Safety Ed Dennis has been solid in coverage but is the team’s most sure-handed tackler. The defensive line has a productive edge rusher in George Wilson Jr., a former Tar Heels recruiting target, but not much more than that. At linebacker, Monchovia Gaffney has had a very solid season, but fellow starter CJ Tillman is having a rough season.
The special teams unit is a rather mediocre unit. Field goal kicker Caleb Dowden has connected on just five of his eight field goals this season and he hasn’t exactly been automatic on kickoffs either. Punter Jack Brady has been solid but not spectacular, and the same goes for the return games.
Off. PPG: 36.6 (16th)
Off. PYPG: 319.9 (9th)
Off. RYPG: 189.5 (27th)
Off. TYPG: 509.4 (3rd)
Off. 3rd Down %: 51.3% (8th)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 44.0 (T-61st)
Sacks Allowed: 20.0 (T-89th)
Def. PPG: 25.4 (T-64th)
Def. PYPG: 246.3 (101st)
Def. RYPG: 157.4 (87th)
Def. TYPG: 403.7 (102nd)
Def. 3rd Down %: 40.0% (84th)
Tackles for A Loss: 42.0 (T-99th)
Sacks: 18.0 (T-61st)
Interceptions: 11 (T-10th)
Turnover Margin: +8 (T-10th)
Penalties Per Game: 6.6 (T-93rd)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 63.8 (114th)
Off. PPG: 34.3
Off. PYPG: 262.2
Off. RYPG: 152.3
Off. TYPG: 414.5
Off. 3rd Down %: 48.3%
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: N/A
Sacks Allowed: 18.0
Def. PPG: 31.0
Def. PYPG: 233.6
Def. RYPG: 175.8
Def. TYPG: 409.4
Def. 3rd Down %: 45.1%
Tackles for Loss: N/A
Turnover Margin: -4
Penalties Per Game: 6.5
Penalty Yards Per Game: 54.3
Keys to the Game
Dominate the Trenches
The Fighting Camels may have an offensive line that is playing well, but this should be a game where the Tar Heels dominate the line of scrimmage. There isn’t much doubt that the offensive line can handle this against the Fighting Camels' defensive line, meaning the focus will be on the defensive line being able to show some hope that they can win consistently up front on run downs against an inferior opponent. With a dominant offensive line on the horizon next weekend against Duke, this defensive front badly needs to show they are capable of bouncing back from the last two weeks.
Run the Ball
Chip Lindsey listened to the demands of everyone last week to run the football and it should be his gameplan again this week. This is the third-straight run defense that the Tar Heels are going to face that is allowing 175 yards per game on the ground and this is a group that has put up those numbers against FCS competition The gameplan should be to run the ball until they prove they can stop it consistently.
Get the Defensive Starters Some Rest
This is a defense that has been worn down the past two weeks and they need to find a way to correct that before the crucial three-game stretch to finish the regular season. The offense can do that by slowing down the pace offensively, but the best way to do it would be to get the backups on the field at some point in this game. In order to do that, the team needs to do what they should do in games like this, blow out the opponent.
OUT- DeAndre Boykins (lower body), Jacolbe Cowan (lower body), R.J. Grigsby (lower body), Malaki Hamrick (lower body), Ben Kiernan (lower body), Kobe Paysour (lower body), George Pettaway (redshirt), Julien Randolph (lower body)
QUEST- Ryan Coe (lower body), Caleb Hood (upper body), Nate McCollum (lower body), Tez Walker (upper body)
Location: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, NC
Time: 12:00 PM
TV: ACC Network
Radio: Tar Heel Sports Network (check local affiliates)