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UNC vs Minnesota: X-Factor

With the Heels facing a stout defensive front, wide receivers will have a tougher test than they’ve faced so far

Appalachian State v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

For the first two weeks of the season, the UNC Tar Heels went up against one team that ranked 113th in the country in rushing defense and a G5 team that had a pretty stout defense last year, but that UNC had absolutely exploded on offense against. That’s no doubt a big part of how UNC, whose running backs were almost certainly the most questionable piece of the offensive roster, currently ranks 10th in the country in rushing yards per game and 17th in yards per attempt, with a different back absolutely tearing through the defense each week. This week, though, the challenge gets stouter. Minnesota has had one of the better defenses in the country for several years now, against the run and the pass. So far this year it’s their passing defense that has really shone, with 4 picks through 2 games and just 156 yards per game against through the air. But their run defense has been good enough that teams haven’t been able to punish them for limiting the aerial attack: in two games, they’ve allowed 16 total points, even though teams have averaged 4.4 yards per carry against them.

On the other side, offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey showed against App State that he is ready and willing to spam the run game if a team is dedicated to taking the pass away. Lindsey said after Saturday’s game that he didn’t want to pass too often because App was playing their safeties deep to not let Drake Maye beat them over the top, so he decided to use the passing game to instead stretch the field horizontally so that the run game would have lighter boxes to work with.* This approach barely worked against App, as the resulting limited number of possessions magnified UNC’s mistakes on offense and turned what aesthetically looked like a 10-ish point regulation win into a double-overtime game — and I might also argue that it would have been worse had the approach not been more or less abandoned out of necessity in the game’s last 10 minutes. Given the Gophers’ M.O. so far this season, I expect this week’s gameplan to look fairly similar, and that means that the execution is going to have to be higher lest the Heels find themselves once again struggling to beat an inferior opponent. And the area on offense with the most room for improvement from the App game is without doubt the pass-catchers, particularly the wide receivers.

*For the longer-term sake of this team, I have questions about this approach largely related to the preseason question of whether Lindsey was really going to be keeping the passing architecture of Phil Longo’s system and adding a complementary run game, as we were led to believe and Drake Maye certainly seemed to expect, or if we’d be seeing the Malzahnian playbook he implemented with unsatisfactory results at Troy. For the sake of this article, we’re taking it at face value as an identity, even if it’s not one I love.

Even with the NCAA’s unjust denial of Devontez Walker’s roster spot on this year’s team, Carolina isn’t really lacking for pass catchers. Kobe Paysour, in almost every game he’s started, has caught at least 7 passes and cleared 70 yards. All he does is get open and move the chains. J.J. Jones had 434 yards receiving last year at 18 yards a catch and has already shown a knack for working back to his quarterback on broken plays, though he has quite a bit to refine in his craft — his hands are inconsistent and his sticks awareness on the early 3rd down against App was shockingly poor. Andre Greene Jr. was a top-100 recruit last year at a position where underclassmen are constantly making impacts across the country. Gavin Blackwell, I think, is still a one-speed player, but that speed is enough sometimes to just break defenses. And that’s not even factoring in Nate McCollum, who saw a couple of snaps against App while working back from a groin injury but whom the staff seemed to think would be stepping in for Josh Downs.

There isn’t necessarily a star receiver on this roster, but with a Drake Maye behind center, you just need guys who can do the job. Against App, “the job” was grossly simplified to screens, quick outs, and curls with the occasional non-clearout vertical route, until it was do-or-die time. I doubt Lindsey wants it to come to that again, so even if he wants to continue pounding the rock until somebody stops it, I think he’s going to have to ask his receivers to do just a little more to make their marks on the game. Whether or not UNC’s offense can meet its lofty aspirations against their biggest test so far is going to come down, in my opinion, to whether the Tar Heel receivers can meet that challenge. So far, the Tar Heel offense has been good. With Drake Maye at quarterback and the last four years of UNC football in mind, that’s a disappointment. It might be on the wide receivers to assert themselves for this team to take the next step towards greatness, starting with Saturday.