In the final (and hopefully shortest) installment of these positional grades, we’ll take a look at two parts of the team: one that spends much less time on the field than the offense and defense, and one that’s never on the field. Namely, that’s UNC’s special teams and coaching. I gave both of units a bit of a hard time in my breakdown of the App game, and I’m happy to say that they both made a huge improvement for the Minnesota game. Let’s talk about it:
Special Teams: B
Some eyebrows were raised before the game when UNC beat reporters conveyed that starting kicker Ryan Coe wasn’t warming up with the rest of the specialists, and it seemed he may have been benched after shanking the potential game-winning field goal against the Mountaineers. It later came out that Coe had sustained an injury, pressing Noah Burnette into service. Burnette didn’t miss a beat, hitting all four of UNC’s extra points and tacking on a 42-yard field goal right down the middle. He did not handle kickoffs, having struggled in that role last year; those went to walk-on transfer Liam Boyd, who didn’t cause any problems. It’ll be interesting, given Mack Brown’s unpredictable handling of special teams and specifically kickers throughout this tenure, to see if Coe comes back to his starting job.
Ben Kiernan only had to punt twice on the day, but one of his punts almost hurt his team in a big way. A 23-yard shank in the fourth quarter with the score at 13-24 would have given the Golden Gophers the ball near midfield, but Kiernan was bailed out by a personal foul on Minnesota near the sideline that sent them back 15 yards and started their drive at the relatively harmless 33-yard line. The drive went three-and-out and the bad punt was forgotten. Mack Brown also decided to have Drake Maye punt on a fourth down early in the game near midfield for seemingly no reason other than that he could — Maye’s punt bounced out of bounds respectably at the 13-yard line. And there’s not much else to say about a game with no punt or kick returns from either side.
Well, I certainly can’t complain about the passing game not letting Drake Maye cook this time. The star quarterback was allowed to read the field and freelance much more than a week ago given his passing opportunities, and it paid dividends — even beyond the raw yardage improvement, Maye’s yards per attempt jumped from pedestrian to elite. And the positive change is reflected in the results: when Maye was shackled, the Heels went to double overtime against a Sun Belt team, and when the Draken was released, they beat a Big Ten team (that has won at least 9 games in the last three full seasons of football) by three scores. I have my aesthetic quibbles with Chip Lindsey’s offense and think he could have tried harder to take the run game horizontal when it was clear running between the tackles wasn’t working, but those are mostly problems of taste rather than indictments of his work.
I wish Gene Chizik would pay more attention to his opponents week over week. It’s been two straight weeks that offenses have used bread-and-butter run plays to repeatedly get chunk yardage on this UNC defense because Chizik hasn’t adequately prepared his guys for them, and he doesn’t adjust his scheme or approach in game so much as he adjusts with personnel substitutions. Especially in a game like this where the quarterback was beating himself, I felt that this game presented real opportunity for the UNC defense to dictate things by committing to shutting down the Gophers’ run game, and that never really happened — Minnesota averaged better than five yards a carry and probably could have made things a little more interesting than they were if they hadn’t tried throwing it 30+ times. A couple of interceptions on Minnesota drives with momentum, including one absolute gift, also didn’t hurt. I’m getting the impression that this defense is more opportunistic than actually good, which is still a massive improvement over last year and certainly ultimately helped win this game. I’m not complaining so much as mildly worrying.
And as for the head man, I was surprised to see him use timeouts effectively, if ultimately to no avail, to end the first half, and the team was a lot better disciplined than against App, committing just 5 penalties and only one of them really falling into the “beating ourselves” category. Positive returns all around, and I hope they continue.