The North Carolina Tar Heels will try to rebound this weekend following their loss to Wake Forest. In order to do so, they have to make their way through Appalachian State, who is more or less an exact mirror of the Heels if you’re looking at points scored/allowed. Sure, the level of competition has been different, but as of right now what is on paper is on paper, and this weekend we will find out who the real deal is.
This will be a really interesting matchup, and there are a few things in particular to look out for. Let’s take a look at a few of those things, and why they will be important in Carolina’s quest to improve their record to 3-1.
Can the Heels stop the run?
One thing that is abundantly clear when looking at App State’s stat line is that they love to run the football. So much, in fact, that their leading rusher Darrynton Evans has one more rushing yard total (333) than QB Zac Thomas has in total passing yards (332). The Mountaineers are ranked 14th in rushing yards per game, and Evans is a huge part of that. He ran for 234 yards against Charlotte, and had 99 rushing yards against East Tennessee. It is a considerably smaller number comparatively, but the rest of the team contributed quite a bit in that game to increase their total to 277.
The potential problem here is that North Carolina’s defense ranks 99th in the country when it comes to stopping the run. So far they have given up 176.3 yards per game, which is terrifying given what App State has been able to do so far. If there is one way that Mack Brown’s team can increase their winning odds dramatically, it is by stopping the run at all cost and making App State throw the ball. Zac Thomas is a good quarterback, but it’s clear that their run game is the head on the snake that is this team. The Heels’ front seven needs to be ready, because it’s going to be a long day.
Solving the third down issue
The Tar Heels have had an atrocious season so far when it comes to third down efficiency on the offensive side of the ball. In the game against Wake Forest the Heels only converted on two of 16 third downs, which is astonishingly awful. The ironic part? They were able to go 3-3 on fourth down. giving them back-to-back games where they converted 100% of their fourth down conversions. Their insane fourth down record is good enough to be tied for 6th place in the country in fourth down efficiency. For third down conversions they rank 119th, converting only 21% of their tries this year. Sports can be weird sometimes.
Needless to say, the Tar Heels have a lot of work to do when it comes to their play selection/execution on third down. There are a couple of things that are causing the issue, but one good place for them to start is staying out of third-and-long situations. For any team in any football league, it is difficult to convert on third down if you are having to go 6+ yards to get to the sticks. They will need to do a better job of getting more yardage in earlier downs if they want to make any significant progress in solving the problem.
The other issue, which can also apply to first and second down, is just better play-calling in particular situations. For example: if the Heels are looking at 3rd and 9, running the ball with a beat up offensive line may not be the best idea. UNC has to put some trust in their young, talented quarterback if they want to find a way to dig out of this particular hole. App State is going to do everything they can to drain the clock, so the Heels need to be as efficient as possible whenever they are able to get their hands on the ball, or it will be really hard for them to pull off a win.
Playing all four quarters
In the game against Miami, Carolina jumped out to a 17-3 lead before going without a touchdown until the final minute of the game. In the game against Wake Forest, they struggled getting anything going for the entire first half, and didn’t really get things going like they wanted to until the fourth quarter. Both of these games ended up being one possession games, but each had a different result. Truth be told, had it not been for Sam Howell’s amazing throw on to Rontavius Groves on 4th and 17, we’d probably be discussing how the Heels can avoid starting the year 1-3.
At some point, UNC is going to have to figure out how to play all four quarters of football. There is a good chance that App State is going to come into Kenan Stadium ready to make a statement to the college football world by knocking out a Power Five team, and the Heels need to be ready to fight the entire game. As I mentioned when discussing third downs, if App State has success on the ground that clock is going to drain faster and faster, and so every possession is going to be extremely important. Limit the run game, fix the third down issues, and in general, play winning football for 60 minutes, and things will look pretty good going into the game against Clemson.