For the fourth time in five seasons, the Tar Heels will enter Week 3 of the season undefeated as they continue the run of early season success under Mack Brown. After a thorough handling of South Carolina in Charlotte, the team needed double overtime to survive upset-minded Appalachian State in the home opener last weekend. Saturday, the team will hope to get to 3-0 before they head out for their first true road trip of the season next weekend. In order to do that, the team will need to find a way past the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the first-ever matchup between the two teams.
While the Tar Heels didn’t put together anywhere near a perfect performance against the Mountaineers a week ago, there are still some things to feel confident about after two weeks. Offensively, it all starts with the running game. Omarion Hampton is on fire out of the gate and will enter Saturday’s game off one of the best rushing performances in program history (26 rush, 234 yds, 3 TD) after British Brooks reached the 100-yard mark the week prior in Charlotte. If the team gets Brooks back this week as they expect, they could boast one of the better running back tandems in the country starting on Saturday. The offensive line has been dominant in run-blocking scenarios through the first two weeks, even with the injuries they have sustained at the guard spots to both Ed Montilus and Jonathan Adorno. Willie Lampkin has been the team’s best lineman to this point, looking flawless in both the run and passing game so far this season. The team also may have found something at left tackle after the performance that Diego Pounds put together against Appalachian State. Fans are concerned about the “slow” start for Drake Maye, but he has gotten off to a fine start and showed that he is going to make the plays when he needs to when he drove the Tar Heels down the field at the end of regulation last Saturday for what should have been a game-winning field goal. The biggest concern with this offense right now might be the wide receivers who have struggled outside of Kobe Paysour. The group has had moments where they have made plays down the field, but the lack of consistent separation has been an issue in each of the first two games. The tight ends weren’t great on Saturday with John Copenhaver limited, but it is still a unit that should be lean on until other receivers break out. Copenhaver should be able to be a steady contributor when he gets out of the club he had to wear in his hand last weekend and the hope is that Bryson Nesbit can return to his form from a year ago. The offensive line was a huge concern heading into the season, but the unit has looked solid despite having to navigate some injuries on the interior to start the year. The group has been dominant in run blocking and the unit has quietly found some solid depth that can hopefully keep them from wearing down at the end of the season. The pass protection is still up and down, but it is definitely improved from where it was at the end of last season.
Defensively, the group took a step back after an outstanding showing in Charlotte. The team was gashed for 219 yards on the ground and allowed six third conversions of seven or more yards. Even with that, it’s clear that this unit is already better than last year, especially when it comes to getting after the quarterback. Kaimon Rucker and Des Evans have both been outstanding to start the season off the edge and Beau Atkinson has provided some great depth. The interior of the unit looked really good in the opener but struggled against Appalachian State. They have to be able to win on run downs more consistently moving forward and it has to start this week against a really good Minnesota running game. The linebacking corps continues to be very solid with the duo of Cedric Gray and Power Echols, which looks like it will play a ton of snaps again this season. The defensive backfield is the unit that has struggled the most so far this season, but it is not all their fault. Gene Chizik has remained very conservative with his coverages on the outside and it has allowed the team to be carved up again through the air early on this season. Tayon Holloway really struggled against South Carolina but he had a much better showing this past weekend. Both Alijah Huzzie and Marcus Allen proved against Appalachian State that they can make plays in coverage and that they can handle being put in 1-on-1 coverage situations. The safety duo of Giovanni Biggers and Don Chapman has been really solid in the first two games of the season which is a good sign considering they will be counted on heavily, especially if Will Hardy struggles the way he did in coverage against Appalachian State.
The Tar Heels special teams unit was a mess last weekend and needs to bounce back starting tomorrow. It all starts with kicker Ryan Coe, who hit two long kicks early in the game but crumbled with the game on the line, badly missing a 39-yarder from the middle of the field that should have won the game. Brown said earlier this week that the kicking job will remain an open competition this season meaning that Coe desperately needs to show the staff that he can be trusted with how inconsistent he has been since he arrived back in the spring. The kick return game was not great a week ago, either. Both teams that the Tar Heels have faced so far this year have stayed away from George Pettaway and the secondary returner hasn’t been able to do much when they’ve gotten the football. Caleb Hood had a rough day in the roll last week and the team needs to find someone who can be more aggressive at the position moving forward. The unit as a whole outside of those two spots is in pretty good shape after two weeks.
The Golden Gophers are off to a 2-0 start to their season as well and are hoping to show that they are a serious contender in that Big Ten West. While they have won their first two, it has been in spite of their offense. The running game is the strength of the unit once again led by the duo of Sean Tyler and Darius Taylor, the latter of which had a massive performance last weekend against Eastern Michigan. That helped take the pressure off of quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis, who has struggled a bit out of the gate attempting to replace Tanner Morgan. He does have two really talented receivers, Daniel Jackson and Corey Crooms, who can hurt the Tar Heels if they aren’t careful. The Golden Gophers boast a veteran offensive line group that is off to a strong start anchored by their two tackles, Arieonte Ersery and Quinn Carroll.
This Golden Gopher defense has been really good this season, but this will clearly be the toughest test of the year so far. The secondary is off to a great start, led by the combination of safety Tyler Nubin and corner Justin Walley who have simply been fantastic to begin the season. The run defense is the area that seems to be the area you can attack with this defense as Nebraska showed in the first game of the season. The defensive front wasn’t been great out of the gate so far this year for the Golden Gophers, but they are hoping that last week’s success against Eastern Michigan can translate. The linebacking corps has gotten some production from Matt Baranowski, who might be the strength of their front seven this season. The numbers may suggest this will be a tough test, but there is some area to attack this Minnesota defense that Nebraska and Eastern Michigan simply weren’t good enough to do.
The Golden Gophers special teams unit has been a lot like the Tar Heels so far this season. The punt and punt return units are in good shape, but the team is looking for more production from the placekicking and kick return units.
Off. PPG: 35.5 (T-43rd)
Off. PYPG: 238.5 (T-66th)
Off. RYPG: 243.5 (T-9th)
Off. TYPG: 482.0 (25th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 61.5% (5th)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 7.0 (T-10th)
Sacks Allowed: 2.0 (T-27th)
Def. PPG: 25.5 (T-83rd)
Def. PYPG: 314.0 (121st)
Def. RYPG: 108.5 (T-58th)
Def. TYPG: 422.5 (109th)
Def. 3rd Down %: 40.0% (T-72nd)
Tackles for A Loss: 20.0 (T-11th)
Sacks: 9.0 (T-6th)
Interceptions: 1 (T-73rd)
Turnover Margin: -1 (T-85th)
Penalties Per Game: 6.0 (T-72nd)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 54.5 (T-82nd)
Off. PPG: 19.0 (T-117th)
Off. PYPG: 156.5 (121st)
Off. RYPG: 175.5 (56th)
Off. TYPG: 332.0 (T-106th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 53.3% (T-27th)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 9.0 (T-28th)
Sacks Allowed: 4.0 (T-71st)
Def. PPG: 8.0 (T-10th)
Def. PYPG: 92.5 (3rd)
Def. RYPG: 131.0 (78th)
Def. TYPG: 223.5 (T-7th)
Def. 3rd Down %: 38.1% (65th)
Tackles for A Loss: 10.0 (T-90th)
Sacks: 7.0 (T-20th)
Interceptions: 4 (T-6th)
Turnover Margin: +2 (T-22nd)
Penalties Per Game: 2.5 (T-3rd)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 21.0 (4th)
Keys to the Game
Match the Physicality
One of the things that P.J. Fleck’s teams have been able to do so well since he has gotten there is win with physicality, especially on the offensive side of the football. The Tar Heels have struggled with physicality under Mack Brown but they have been better in that area in the first two games of the season after such a strong focus on it in the offseason. This will be their toughest test in this area so far this season and if they want to win this game, they have to match what Minnesota will bring in the trenches.
Take Care of the Football
The Tar Heels did a great job of this against Appalachian State when there wasn’t any margin for error. This game could be similar, especially if Minnesota leans heavily on the run and shortens the game the way we expect them to. The Tar Heels could also lean on their run game if they have success with it early like Nebraska did against the Golden Gophers, meaning possessions could be limited in this one. Turnovers could be tough to overcome in this game with those limited opportunities, so it is imperative that the team takes care of the ball.
Capitalize in the Redzone
With us expecting limited possession, the Tar Heels also need to be efficient when it comes to finishing their drives. The team was very efficient in the first game of the season against South Carolina, converting on all four of their redzone trips, three of which ended in touchdowns. They weren’t nearly as efficient last weekend, scoring on six of their eight redzone trips, but leaving too many points out there. The Tar Heels have to take advantage of their trips inside the 20 in this one if there aren’t going to be a ton of possessions.
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- Jonathan Adorno (lower body), British Brooks (lower body), Ed Montilus (lower body)
PROB- Nate McCollum (lower body), John Copenhaver (upper body)
QUEST- Chris Autman-Bell (undisclosed), Lucas Finnessy (undisclosed), Darnell Jefferies (undisclosed), Derik LeCaptain (undisclosed), Cody Lindenberg (leg), Craig McDonald (undisclosed), Brevyn Spann-Ford (undisclosed), Jack Tinnen (undisclosed), Bruce Williams (undisclosed)
Location: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, NC
Time: 3:30 PM
Radio: Tar Heel Sports Network (check local affiliates)