The Tar Heels sit 3-0 for the third time in four years after a thorough handling of the Minnesota Golden Gophers this past weekend. The team dominated the game through the air on offense and used two key turnovers and a stingy pass defense to pick up their most comfortable win of the season so far. As the team now looks for their first 4-0 start since 1997, these are the guys that are trending up and trending down heading to Pittsburgh.
McCollum is the latest Tar Heel to earn player of the week honors at his position from the conference after a huge performance. In his first game back at full speed after suffering a lower-body injury prior to the first game, he caught 15 of his 21 targets for 165 yards and a touchdown. He set the tone early, catching Maye’s first seven completions for 95 yards including his impressive touchdown grab through contact. Mack Brown compared what he saw from McCollum on Saturday to what he saw from Josh Downs the last couple of seasons in his postgame presser and it is clear that McCollum and Maye already have a strong connection. After Saturday it seems like there is a chance he could follow in Downs’ footsteps and be the team’s next 1,000-yard receiver.
The Tar Heel defensive backs had a really good week for themselves in coverage across the board, but Chatman deserves a little extra praise. After not being a feature part of the rotation at corner in the first two weeks, Chatman played 39 snaps for the team on Saturday and allowed just a 12.5 quarterback rating when he was thrown at. He was targeted ten times and allowed just three of those to be caught for 60 yards. Not only was he there in coverage, but he did a great job playing the football, pulling down a key interception to stall one promising Minnesota drive and registering three other pass breakups.
The tight ends were nearly shut out against Appalachian State, but they bounced back with a big performance on Saturday. With John Copenhaver still not able to play a big role in the passing game, it was Bryson Nesbit and Kamari Morales who stepped up and combined for 110 receiving yards and a touchdown on six receptions. With uncertainty as to when Copenhaver will be able to return to full strength, the Tar Heels will be relying on this duo to help stabilize this passing game for the foreseeable future.
Both linebackers had nice days for themselves on Saturday, but Echols was clearly the more impactful of the two. Not only did he lead the team in tackles with nine, including seven solos, but he also pulled down an impressive interception that set the tone defensively for the day. The diving grab off of a deflection ended a promising first drive of the day for Minnesota and was emblematic of the bend-don’t-break mindset that the team played with the entire day.
Burnette was forced into action after starting placekicker Ryan Coe wasn’t able to dress on Saturday and he gave the staff something to think about. Not only did he hit all four of his extra points, but he also nailed his lone field goal attempt, a 42-yarder at the end of the third quarter that extended the lead back to two possessions. It’s hard to see him not being the starter moving forward unless he gives the staff a good reason why he shouldn’t.
Just like McCollum, this was Lane’s most significant playing time of the season and he thrived in it. In just 27 snaps, Lane racked up five total tackles and showed off his versatility, playing snaps at both safety spots, outside corner and nickelback. He is beginning to ramp himself up following the injury that cost him the majority of fall camp and he could be a very impactful piece of this secondary moving forward.
Cowan played just seven snaps on Saturday, but he made a major impact when he was on the field. He had two pressures in his four pass rush opportunities, including a massive sack on 3rd & 2 that forced the Golden Gophers to punt the ball back to the Tar Heels and led to the touchdown that officially put the game away.
With McCollum back at full strength, Paysour made the move to the outside and had the least productive game of his career as a starter. After being targeted nine times in each of the first two games, he only had the ball thrown his way twice, finishing the night with one catch for four yards. This is the first time in his first six starts that he has not led the team in receiving, an impressive streak to begin his career. It is going to take him some time to adjust to playing on the outside full-time, but the hope is that he can make an impact out there, especially now that we know Devontez Walker won’t play this season.
The injury to Coe came at a rough time and might be the reason that he loses the starting placekicking job. His missed field goal against Appalachian State nearly cost the Tar Heels the game and it looked like Mack Brown was going to stick with him this weekend despite that. Now, it’s hard to see them going back to him unless Noah Burnette gives them a reason to.
⇩Interior Defensive Line
After a strong start to the season in Charlotte, this unit has really struggled. The interior defensive line has been pushed around in each of the past two weeks and the inability to win off the line of scrimmage is a big part of why the team has allowed 389 yards rushing in the last two weeks. The group also continues to struggle to create pressure from these guys. The group registered just four of the team’s 13 total pressures, the second straight week they have produced that number. No one expects them to create the amount of pressure that the edge rushers should, but you would like to get a little bit more from them on passing downs moving forward.
The interior defensive line wasn’t the only part of the defensive front that was quiet on Saturday. After getting a ton of pressure the first two weeks of the season, the edge rushers were only able to create one sack and seven total pressures on 36 Minnesota dropbacks. The edge rushers also struggled to defend the run again and they will need to do a better job at setting the edge more consistently against Pittsburgh this weekend.