You can’t complain too much about a defensive performance that gave up just 13 points to a Big Ten team, but I’ll give it a shot anyways. The UNC Tar Heels’ defense complemented its high-flying offense nicely but not without some scares against Minnesota on Saturday, and after three games, it looks like the demons of last year’s defensive debacle are firmly behind the Heels. Let’s do some grading!
Defensive Line: C-
After two decent-to-good games, the UNC front came back to Earth slightly against the Golden Gophers’ jumbo-sized offensive line. Minnesota’s rushing game was routinely successful, with lead back Darius Taylor averaging over 6 yards per carry on his 22 rushing attempts as the UNC line simply got washed out of the way on more occasions than not and didn’t record a single non-sack tackle for loss. No Tar Heel defensive lineman had more than Jahvaree Ritzie’s 4 tackles, as they just couldn’t make contact with the ballcarrier early enough. In the passing game, the line was able to get penetration, but they were undisciplined about it, usually giving Athan Kaliakmanis space to easily step up and either scramble or deliver a checkdown. Des Evans was particularly guilty of this, as he continued to get upfield with relative ease only to have run himself out of the play. The Heels were credited with 7 quarterback hurries, which is pretty good, and one game-sealing sack by Jacolbe Cowan that probably is the sole reason this grade is anywhere near respectable. Both of Minnesota’s interceptions were caused by pressure, but in both cases it was caused by linebacker blitzes — I didn’t think the line-induced pressure was all that impactful on the Gophers’ passing offense.
A week after probably the worst game UNC’s current tandem of linebackers has played, the pair of Cedric Gray and Power Echols turned in one of their best. Echols was all over the field, leading the team in tackles with 9 (7 solo) and getting things going on defense with a catch at his ankles for an interception on Minnesota’s first offensive drive. With the way Minnesota was playing, he was able to thrive playing downhill and hitting hard and not having to worry too much about sticking to a man. Gray had 7 tackles of his own and played closer to the line of scrimmage than Echols, including getting pressure on a blitz that led to Echols’ pick. He also got his hands on a pass himself, but didn’t secure the pick. Kaimon Rucker made his presence felt as an edge rusher; though he wasn’t officially granted a QB hurry, he was more visible this game than last. In space, though, he and backup Jack Amari Gainer were both victimized a fair amount by their eagerness to get to the QB, as Minnesota simply threw past them to checkdown options for easy first downs on multiple occasions.
Alijah Huzzie and Marcus Allen continue to impress as UNC’s primary cornerbacks. Huzzie might be the best UNC defensive back since M.J. Stewart, and just about every ball thrown his receiver’s way couldn’t be caught because Huzzie was in their hip pocket, including an early throw towards the end zone where he basically ran the route for the receiver and almost came away with an interception, forcing a field goal. Allen’s biggest moment was probably getting called for pass interference on an underthrown pass I thought he played perfectly, but other than that, he was steady in coverage and didn’t see many balls come his way, either.
Elsewhere, UNC made some personnel changes to try and sort out the backfield struggles they’ve had so far. Antavious “Stick” Lane split safety snaps with Don Chapman and led the backfield with 5 tackles, making his mark in the run game. After Tayon Holloway allowed an early first down conversion, he ceded his role to Armani Chatman, who I don’t think we’d seen at all yet this season. Chatman had an eventful game; he was roasted a couple of times before and after the catch but also had three passes defensed and an interception that was essentially fielding an arm punt by the Gophers’ backup quarterback. His stats were flashy, but by the eye test, I’d say Chatman’s performance was more opportunistic than good. A defense needs players who can take advantage of opportunities, so that’s not supposed to be a dig, but I’m also not sure Chatman proved he should be the third corner over Holloway despite the latter’s inexperience biting him quite a few times the past couple of weeks.