After opening the 2022 football season with a dominant win over Florida A&M, the competition ramps up for North Carolina in a road battle against Appalachian State on Saturday.
Since making the jump from the FCS ranks, the Mountaineers have become one of the more consistent programs in the country. During its eight seasons playing in the FBS subdivision, Appalachian State has won 80 games — good for sixth most amongst all FBS teams since 2014.
Taking into account North Carolina's loss to the Mountaineers in 2019 and the youth of this UNC team, head coach Mack Brown understands the challenges Saturday’s game presents.
“(Appalachian State) is experienced with confidence and we’re not,” he said. “All odds are against us this weekend.”
Here are three keys for North Carolina to come out victorious against Appalachian State:
Remain poised under center
In his first career start, quarterback Drake Maye made his name known.
The redshirt first-year became the first Tar Heel to pass for five touchdowns in his debut. His poise in the pocket was notable and his first start arguably could not have gone any better, yet the Huntersville, N.C. native would be the first to say otherwise.
“Drake almost has a superstition, or thinks it's a bad omen, to talk about the good stuff,” offensive coordinator Phil Longo said. “Immediately upon getting a compliment he’s like, ‘Yeah, but I’ve got to work on (this).’”
Appalachian State’s stifling defense could cause some trouble for Maye. For the past seven years, the Mountaineers’ defensive unit has ranked either first or second in the Sun Belt Conference in points allowed per game.
If Maye can withstand Appalachian State's defensive push and show the same poise and maturity seen early this season, the Tar Heels have the necessary talent on offense to put up points.
Contain the Mountaineers' ground game
Brown pointed to run defense as one of the main factors that helped North Carolina defeat Florida A&M, as the Tar Heels held the Rattlers to only 56 yards on the ground. However, the Mountaineers boast a rushing attack that's loaded with talent.
The group is headlined by running backs Nate Noel and Camerun Peoples — two players that have both recorded 1000-yard rushing seasons. The dynamic duo presents contrasting running styles, with Noel thriving in the open field with his speed and Peoples doing most of his damage between the tackles.
“If we’re going to win the football game, it has to be won with the front seven and them being able to control the ground attack,” assistant head coach for defense Gene Chizik said. “(Appalachian State) has done a fantastic job (running the football) — they’ve got a great scheme.”
One of the Mountaineers' central plays is the stretch run toward the hash marks. Utilizing North Carolina’s speed at linebacker, showcased by the play of sophomore Power Echols, UNC could find success disrupting Appalachian State's rush attack.
Overcome a hostile road environment
Since Brown’s return to Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels have struggled to win games on the road.
Last year, North Carolina was winless away from Kenan Stadium. Considering that any away game during the 2020 season was played in front of limited or no spectators, UNC hasn't won a contest in a true-road environment since 2019.
When the Tar Heels strut into Kidd Brewer Stadium on Saturday, they'll be playing in front of one the largest crowds in Appalachian State history. The game has been sold-out since July, and tickets on resell markets start at over $200, exemplifying the magnitude of North Carolina's first trip to Boone.
In front of a raucous crowd, the Tar Heels will have to do something they haven’t done in three years — silence a packed house.
“We’re going to a hostile environment, and we haven’t played well on the road in those,” Brown said. “We’ve got our hands full and we’re going to have to play great to have a chance to win.”
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