Gophers @ North Carolina: Week 3 Preview

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Broadcast Info:

  • Date: Sat., Sept. 16
  • TV channel: ESPN
  • Time of kickoff: 2:30 p.m. (CST)
    • Betting line: Minnesota (+7.5) @ North Carolina, o/u: (48.5 points)

Opponent Information (North Carolina):

  • 2023 record: 2-0
    • (neutral field) vs. South Carolina 31-17 W
    • V. Appalachian State 40-34 W (2OT)
  • 2022 record: 9-5
    • (San Diego Credit Union Bowl): 27-28 L vs. Oregon
    • (ACC Championship): 10-39 L vs. Clemson
      • V. Florida A&M (FCS) 56-24 W
      • @ Appalachian State 63-61 W
      • @ Georgia State 35-28 W
      • V. Notre Dame 32-45 L
      • V. Virginia Tech 41-10 W
      • @ Miami (FL) 27-24 W
      • @ Duke 38-35 W
      • V. Pittsburgh 42-24 W
      • V. Virginia 31-28 W
      • @ Wake Forest 36-34 W
      • V. Georgia Tech 17-21 L
      • V. North Carolina State 27-30 L
  • Head Coach: Mack Brown (5th year/*15th overall)
  • Players to watch: Drake Maye (QB), Omarion Hampton (RB), Cedric Gray (LB), Kaimon Rucker (OLB), Kobe Paysour (WR)

After a 2-0 start at Huntington Bank Stadium, the Gophers will face another test on Saturday when they travel to Chapel Hill to take on the daunted Tar Heels. UNC is led by star QB Drake Maye, who is viewed by many as a top-two quarterback in college football. The Tar Heels have had their fair share of struggles this season, getting taken to two overtime periods against in-state rival Appalachian State in a thrilling 30-24 victory. Maye led his team to a lot of preseason hype and they’ve partially lived up to it thus far, ranking 20th in the latest AP Poll.

North Carolina Season Storylines:

  • Kent State transfer WR Devontez “Tez” Walker ruled ineligible:

One of the biggest stories of the college football season has been North Carolina WR Tez Walker not receiving an immediate transfer waiver from the NCAA. Last season with Kent State, Walker had 58 catches for 921 yards and 11 TDs. At the time of his transfer, there were certain NCAA rules that led many to think he would be immediately eligible, especially after Kent State head coach Sean Lewis left for the OC position at Colorado. He was a premier prospect in the transfer portal and North Carolina brought him in to be their WR1 replacement for current Indianapolis Colts WR Josh Downs.

Fast forward to the present day, Walker has been ruled ineligible for the 2023 season because UNC is his third school after beginning his career at NC Central. This has led North Carolina to lean on young WRs J.J. Jones and Kobe Paysour who have 100+ receiving yards this season. Without a true WR1 option, many wondered how the Maye-led offense would look, but they’ve seemed to not miss a beat with nearly 500 passing yards through two weeks.

  • Replacing OC Phil Longo with Chip Lindsey

One of the biggest coordinator hires of the offseason was when offensive coordinator Phil Longo joined Luke Fickell at Wisconsin after four seasons with Mack Brown at UNC. Since the beginning of 2019, Longo’s first season, the Tar Heels ranked first in the ACC with 10,074 total rushing yards (197.5 per game) and second in the conference with 102 rushing scores. With talented QBs Sam Howell and Drake Maye last season the Tar Heels had one of the best offenses in all of college football.

Mack Brown went out and brought in veteran Chip Lindsey as their replacement for Mack Brown. Lindsey held to same position last season at UCF under Gus Malzahn, where the Knights scored 31.9 PPG, ranking 38th-best in the country. Before that, he was the head coach at Troy and before that, he was the OC at Auburn (under Malzahn) and Southern Miss. North Carolina has already shown to be more willing to run the football under Lindsey after running an Air-Raid type system with Longo.

  • How good are the Tar Heels?:

After an offseason that involved Drake Maye transfer rumors, a Phil Longo departure to Wisconsin and Josh Downs getting drafted by the Indianapolis Colts, the expectations for UNC in 2023 were all over the place. Getting a talent like Maye under center raises the floor pretty high for any team around the country no matter which players are on your team. North Carolina’s defense was their Achilles heel last season allowing the 102nd-fewest PPG (30.8).

It looked like their defensive woes might’ve improved after allowing only 17 points to South Carolina in Week One, but 494 total yards and 34 points last weekend to App State at home there are still plenty of questions. Much like the Gophers, I think there are many questions that have not been answered about North Carolina’s season-long potential, most of which, will likely be answered this weekend.

Gophers’ path to victory:

It would be pretty easy to say the Gophers’ game plan should revolve around slowing down Drake Maye. But I would pretty confidently say that Maye is the toughest QB Joe Rossi and Minnesota have faced since Week 1 in 2021 when they welcomed Ohio State and C.J. Stroud to Dinkytown. Those 45 points were tied for the most that a UMN defense has allowed since 2020 and easily the worst that Joe Rossie’s defense has looked over the last two seasons. Stroud was 13/22 in that game for 294 yards and 4 TDs. I would assume that Joe Rossi learned a lot in that game that he will hope to take into this one.

With all that being said, the Gophers’ secondary has arguably looked like the strength of their team so far, and North Carolina’s pass-catchers have not been much more than sufficient. Therefore, I think Minnesota matches up fairly well in this game. Slowing down the Tar Heels’ rushing attack led by Omarion Hampton might be an underrated key in this one. Last week against App State, Hampton ran for a nationwide week-high of 234 yards and three touchdowns. Like pass-first teams, when the running game is rolling North Carolina’s offense becomes that much harder to stop.

For as high-powered as UNC’s offense can be, and how dominant the Gophers’ defense has looked, this game will come down to whether or not the Gophers’ offense can score enough points. Minnesota’s 38 total points through the season thus far, might not even be enough in this game to come home with a victory. We will have to see the offense do something that they haven’t done, generate consistent explosive plays.

There is a chance that P.J. Fleck and the Gophers attack this game with their typical game plan of trying to have long offensive drives and keep North Carolina’s offense and Drake Maye off the field. While that certainly could work, the margin of error is very small when you play a high-powered offense like that. I have a bad feeling that might be what we see Saturday afternoon and for that reason, I don’t think the Gophers offense has shown me enough to keep with North Carolina in this game and I think we will see a 34-14 UNC victory.

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