The first two weeks of UNC’s football season have been a lot of what fans expected – high-octane offense and an unpredictable defense.
Carolina averages 482 yards per game, second in the ACC to only Florida State, but is tied with Clemson for ninth in the country at 243.5 rushing yards per game. UNC’s been fortunate to have 100-yard rushers in each of its first two games – British Brooks in the 31-17 win over South Carolina, then Omarion Hampton in the 40-34 comeback vs. App State.
The Tar Heels’ defense generated nine sacks against South Carolina, then failed to register a single one against App State. The Gamecocks racked up 351 yards against UNC, the effect of which was negated due to UNC’s sack total, while App State nearly reached the 500-yard mark.
Carolina faces a brand-new opponent on Saturday, Sept. 16 at 3:30 p.m., welcoming undefeated Minnesota to the friendly confines of Kenan Stadium. The Golden Gophers will be significantly tougher to score against, as they allow under 250 yards per game to opponents.
With a brand new opponent who should prove to be UNC’s toughest test of 2023 so far, let’s take a look at five things to watch out for:
Who will win the running back battle?
If this portion of the story was being written last year, the position battle would focus on UNC quarterback Drake Maye vs. Minnesota QB Tanner Morgan.
The latter is now an NFL free agent, while Maye is struggling for a Heisman Trophy contender’s standards through two weeks (477 passing yards, two touchdowns, two interceptions).
This year, the position battle to watch is Tar Heels running back Omarion Hampton vs. Golden Gophers running back Darius Taylor, two of the country’s top young backs.
Hampton enjoyed a breakout performance in UNC’s 40-34 comeback win over App State, scoring his third and final touchdown in overtime, to bring UNC within an extra point. The sophomore back ended up with a nation-leading 234 rushing yards, one spot ahead of Taylor.
Minnesota’s true freshman running back, Taylor, carried the rock an FBS-high 33 times for 193 yards and a touchdown. This came a week after he only recorded one carry for three yards against Nebraska.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see both Hampton and Taylor finish the night with 200 yards. The question is – who will have more of an impact?
Will Drake Maye finally live up to his Heisman hype?
Despite his slow start to 2023, Drake Maye is one of the country’s best college quarterbacks.
Maye already has 477 yards through two games – not bad – but not good for someone receiving Heisman Trophy hype and projected to go first overall in the 2024 NFL Draft.
UNC’s comeback win over App State was a thriller, but it was also the first game since last year’s ACC championship in which Maye failed to throw a touchdown.
Against a Minnesota defense allowing 223.5 total yards and 92.5 passing yards per game, Saturday will be Maye’s toughest test so far.
Which UNC wide receiver will shine?
With Devontez Walker being ruled out for the season due to ineligibility, Carolina needs wide receivers to step up.
We thought it was going to be Georgia Tech transfer Nate McCollum, but he was injured Week 1 and virtually a non-factor last weekend.
Luckily, two receivers have answered the call – Kobe Paysour and J.J. Jones. Paysour anchored Carolina’s receiving attack with 66 yards and a touchdown in Week 1, while Jones collected 91 yards last weekend.
Expect Maye to look their way against Minnesota on Saturday. Either one could have a big game.
Which UNC defensive unit will show up?
Defense and UNC go together like orange juice and toothpaste – not very well.
Carolina’s defense looked a lot more like the peanut butter and jelly combo against South Carolina – registering nine sacks and limiting the Gamecocks to -2 rushing yards. They played like OJ and toothpaste against App State, with the Mountaineers scoring 34 points and nearly gaining 500 yards.
Will UNC need a crunch-time field goal?
It wouldn’t be a UNC-App State football game without late fireworks.
Carolina had a chance to win late in regulation, but Cincinnati transfer Ryan Coe shanked two kicks wide left – one that came even after a timeout.
Outside of that late blunder, Coe is perfect on his kicks so far, going 8-for-8 on extra points and 3-for-4 on field goals.
Facing a strong defensive team like Minnesota on Saturday, Carolina may need to call on Coe for drive-ending points.