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UNC vs. Minnesota: Three Things Learned

Despite a couple of interceptions thrown by Maye, the Heels were able to put away the Gophers in their first-ever matchup.

NCAA Football: Minnesota at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It was hard to envision what yesterday’s game between UNC and Minnesota was going to be like, but I think I can safely say that none of us knew it was going to go like that. Sure, not only did UNC comfortably beat an unranked team, they beat a team with an underwhelming quarterback while Drake Maye did all of the things that Drake Maye does. But did we expect Maye to throw two picks? Also did anybody have Omarion Hampton and British Brooks being non-factors on their Bingo cards? Despite three key players having a rough day, the Heels still found a way to earn a comfortable win to improve to 3-0.

Let’s dive into what we learned from a really weird afternoon in Kenan.

Nate McCollum is as advertised

While yesterday wasn’t Drake Maye’s best game, Georgia Tech transfer Nate McCollum made sure that the NFL-bound quarterback got to show off what he is able to do to scouts, while earning a bit of attention for himself. McCollum finished the game against the Gophers catching 15 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown. From start to finish it was clear that he was a key missing piece in this offense, catching passes all over the field and recorded a couple of explosive plays. King among those was his 46-yard touchdown catch in the first quarter.

The nerve-wracking part of that touchdown catch was that McCollum ended up landing awkwardly on the way to the ground, and it looked like his groin muscle health was being tested early. Thankfully he seemed ok for the rest of the game despite missing some snaps. Now that Drake Maye has one of his best weapons back, the entire picture of UNC’s offense is finally coming into focus. Of course it only makes it that much more frustrating that Tez Walker won’t be able to contribute, but perhaps we end up seeing him down the road should some legal pressure change the NCAA’s mind a bit (Note: I don’t know anything, I would just be a big fan of Walker pursuing legal action).

UNC is finally figuring out how to win the third-down battle

One of the funnier things that happens in my household is collectively cringing every time we hear the third down music that UNC plays when the team is on defense. Prior to this season, that music usually meant that the Heels were about to allow one of the most painful plays that you’ve ever seen in your life, the other team was going to get a first down, and ultimately the drive would eventually result in a touchdown. Thankfully that has changed this year, and the offense is doing their part on third down as well.

The Heels defense only allowed Minnesota to convert on 3 of their 12 third-down tries, and against App State they allowed the Mountaineers to convert on 8 of 17. While the latter number isn’t elite by any stretch of the imagination, this does show that the Heels are finally figuring out how to get stops on critical downs. On the other side of the ball, Drake Maye & Co. managed to convert on third down 12 times. Third down will make or break games, and it seems like Mack Brown and his staff have finally made it a point of emphasis to win that particular battle as often as possible. Let’s just hope the trend continues in ACC play.

Three games = three different ways to victory

If somebody were to list off three random games from last season that UNC won and conducted a survey to see how people thought these games were won, I’d be willing to bet that each person surveyed would say something about Drake Maye. While he is indeed always a reason that the Heels win, the first three games of the season have had three different standout groups. In the first game against South Carolina, the defense was the star of the show. In the second game, Omarion Hampton ran all over App State. Against Minnesota, Drake Maye and Nate McCollum destroyed their defense after it became obvious that the running backs weren’t going to be able to produce against the Gopher’s defense.

The difference between good and very good/great teams is versatility, and it feels like the Heels have finally found some form of that. The closest that this team came to being a pick-your-poison team was the Sam Howell/Michael Carter/Javonte Williams season, but that defense didn’t quite have the juice to make that team special. While it’s clear that the Heels defense still isn’t the strongest of the two groups — it’s hard to be when the offense has a potential top five NFL pick — it does feel like the defense is very capable of winning a few more games this season for the Heels. Being one dimensional will get you a winning season and a bowl game, but being three-dimensional gives the Heels their best chance to win the ACC title for the first time since 1980. That is of course assuming that they can make it to Charlotte. We’ll see how things go starting with Pitt next week.