The North Carolina Tar Heels football season kicked off last Saturday with their week zero matchup against Florida A&M at home. While it wasn’t all pretty, the Heels came away with a 56-24 win.
Next up is a step up in competition as UNC will be headed to Appalachian State to take on the Mountaineers. App is coming off 10-4 season, and they haven’t won fewer than nine games since 2014, which was their first year in FBS. A road game against a good team isn’t going to be easy, and this should be quite the test for Carolina. Before this weekend’s game, let’s look at some potential keys to Saturday’s battle.
Can the defense show up?
There are aspects of last Saturday’s defensive performance against Florida A&M where you could squint and maybe understand why that game played out the way it did.
It was the first game of the season and the first under new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. It was against a team in Florida A&M that you should be able to overwhelm on talent alone and you probably don’t want to put too much on tape for future opponents to look at. Even FAMU’s choice of starting quarterback apparently caught UNC off guard. Star defensive back Tony Grimes exited part way through the game. All of those reasons could maybe combine to make things look a little worse than you might expect.
On the other hand, all of those reasons better be actual reasons and not excuses, because that performance was not great. FAMU is a FCS team, not a bad one, having gone 9-3 with a FCS playoffs appearance last year, but a FCS team nevertheless. Despite that, the Rattlers put up 279 passing yards on UNC, keeping the game within a couple scores going into the fourth quarter. Not to mention, A&M was down 25 players as part of the issues that nearly led to the game’s cancellation. Carolina’s performance left a lot to be desired.
Well this week’s game will represent a big step up as they head to Boone to play Appalachian State. App has been one of the best G5 programs in recent years and are expected to be again this year. Obviously there’s been a good amount of turnover since 2019, but that was the last time these two teams played, and the Mountaineers won that day. If the defense plays like they did for a second consecutive game, it could prove to be a lot more costly.
Fighting the injury bug
As touched on briefly with the earlier mention of Grimes, UNC are dealing with some injuries to key players in the leadup to this game. Star receiver Josh Downs also got a little banged up in the win over Florida A&M after having previously showed how good he is with a two touchdown performance. Those are two pretty big pieces for Carolina, and it would be tough if they ended up missing.
As for their status for Saturday, UNC has played it close to the vest so far, saying they they’re going to continue evaluating them throughout the week, before updating their status ahead of Saturday’s game.
Football is obviously a team game and with the exception of maybe quarterbacks, you can’t really pin the hopes of a game on just on player. However, if you were ranking the most important players to UNC, Downs and Grimes would be pretty high up there.
Battle of the quarterbacks
The quarterbacks on both sides will provide interesting storylines coming into this game.
On the UNC side will be Drake Maye, looking to continue his impressive start against what will be a step up in competition. In his starting debut, Maye threw for 294 yards and five touchdowns against Florida A&M. It was only one game, but with quarterback being one of the big questions for the UNC coming into this season, for the moment, it appears answered.
On the App State side will be Chase Brice in his second season with the Mountaineers. While UNC haven’t faced App since he’s been there, they have faced off with Brice before. The former Clemson quarterback has transferred twice, with the first being to Duke before the 2020 season. While he was in Durham, the Heels met a Brice-led team and were pretty good against him. In the 2020 Victory Bell game, UNC held Brice to 11-23 passing for just 155 yards, no touchdowns, and an interception.
Now, the personnel on the UNC side will be different than it was that day and obviously Brice is playing with a completely different school. App State is probably a better team than the 2020 Duke squad, and Brice was very effective for them last season. On the other hand, his top three receivers from last year are gone, and they accounted for over 70% of the Mountaineers’ receiving yards and 20 of their 29 receiving touchdowns last season. That’s a lot to replace, and while maybe they can, UNC needs to take advantage against a QB they’ve had success against before.