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Heel Tough Blog: Minnesota Recap

Bob Donnan- USA Today Sports

For the third time in four years, the Tar Heels are 3-0 to start the season after beating the Minnesota Golden Gophers in the first meeting between the two programs on Saturday. Despite not being able to run the ball or stop the run, the Tar Heels dominant passing game was too much for the Golden Gophers to handle, as the Tar Heels pulled away late for their second victory over a Power 5 opponent in what Mack Brown labeled the toughest start to a season he has had in his career. Here are our biggest takeaways from the 31-13 win.

Nate McCollum is a Huge Boost for This Passing Game

The Tar Heel passing game was a concern for some fans after the first two games, but it was the reason that the team won on Saturday. After throwing for 477 yards and two touchdowns in those first two affairs, the Tar Heels threw for 414 yards and two touchdowns, the most passing yards since last year’s game with Wake Forest. It’s no coincidence that this was McCollum's first game back at full speed from the lower body injury that kept him out of the opener with South Carolina. The Georgia Tech transfer was dominant from the word go, catching seven passes on the first two drives for 95 yards and a touchdown to help set the tone for the passing game. He finished with 15 catches, 165 yards and a touchdown on 21 targets, resembling a lot of what we saw from Josh Downs in the past few years.

Willie Lampkin Was Sorely Missed on Saturday

The Tar Heels had to navigate yet another absence of a key offensive starter on Saturday, this time left guard Willie Lampkin. The Coastal Carolina transfer was easily the team’s best offensive lineman in the first two weeks of the season and that was very obvious against the Gophers.  The unit, which was outstanding a week ago, simply could not get any push up front against a team that was gashed on the ground in the season opener against Nebraska. Ed Montilus simply wasn’t consistent enough in place of him and the Tar Heels have to hope that this isn’t some sort of lingering injury for Lampkin.

Passing Defense Took a Step in the Right Direction

The Tar Heel pass defense was torn apart in the first two weeks, but they responded with a promising showing on Saturday. The unit allowed just 133 yards, the fewest they have allowed since the Wofford game back in 2021. The team nearly had as many pass breakups (8) as Minnesota quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis had completions (11). The secondary was the big reason for that success as they made plays on the football the entire afternoon. Armani Chatman, another transfer addition from this offseason, saw his first significant snaps of the season and thrived, breaking up three passes and pulling down an important interception in the first half. Alijah Huzzie and Marcus Allen had good days for themselves in coverage, as did Don Chapman, who nearly pulled down his second interception in as many weeks. Even the linebackers made plays in coverage throughout the day, including another remarkable interception off a tipped ball for Power Echols. The quarterback play was far from good from Minnesota and there will be tougher tests later this season, but this shows that this group is capable of being better than they were last year and in the first two weeks this year.

Three Games, Three Different Wins

One of the steps of going from good to great is finding different ways to win games and so far the Tar Heels have to do that in each of their three games to begin the season. The team won the game with South Carolina in Charlotte thanks to a dominant defensive showing spearheaded by their defensive line and it was the rushing offense that carried the load in the second game of the season against Appalachian State. Yesterday, it was the passing game and bend-don’t-break nature of the defense that was the difference and allowed for the most comfortable win of the season. These three wins show just how talented this roster is across the board and how this team is able to adjust to the opponent's weaknesses, something they didn’t do a great job of prior to this year.

Tar Heels Still Can’t Put Games Away Early

One of the other elements of being a great team is being able to put games you’re in control of away early. The Tar Heels were presented with that situation on Saturday after jumping out to a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter but weren’t able to really put the Golden Gophers away until late in the fourth. Turnovers and unnecessary defensive penalties kept Minnesota around in the first half and Minnesota was able to muddy things up and keep themselves around for the majority of the second half. This was a problem that the team had a year ago and it ended up bitting them down the stretch of the season in the losses to Georgia Tech and Oregon. This year, the team has had the chance to put South Carolina away early in the fourth quarter and couldn’t do it, giving the Gamecocks multiple chances to get themselves back into the game. The team has already taken a step forward from last season, considering neither of the games ever got within single digits in the fourth quarter. That next step, though, is to put those superior opponents away early in the second half and take the pressure off of yourselves in that final quarter, which this team has the talent to do.


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