Redshirt first-year quarterback Drake Maye's play has been key to the North Carolina football team's undefeated record through week three, but the offense wasn’t enough to stave off a Saturday defeat against Notre Dame.
At 3-1, the Tar Heels now prepare to head into conference play with a 3:30 p.m. showdown against Virginia Tech in Kenan Stadium this weekend. The two ACC Coastal programs will both be looking for a rebound victory after significant week four losses.
Here are three keys to a UNC victory against the Hokies:
Establish the early-down run
The Tar Heels’ run game struggled against the Fighting Irish, registering just 66 yards and zero touchdowns, its lowest total in both categories this season.
Head coach Mack Brown said in a Monday press conference that the first-down run is something he wants to see a leading element of the offense. While the team isn’t afraid to pass on the first play of a drive, establishing the ground game in the early downs limits challenging third-and-long situations and also keeps opposing defenses guessing.
Brown said that establishing the run makes the team less reliant on quick scoring plays that force the defense to stay on the field for long stretches.
“The defense is on the field too long early in the game, and then we come in and throw one one-play deep touchdown and the defense is right back on the field,” Brown said. “So we've got to run the ball better offensively to try to stay on the field more."
Throughout the early part of the season, several running backs have made their case to earn more touches, yet hardly anyone has used the opportunity to stake their claim as the lead back.
Offensive coordinator Phil Longo said that he wants one or two of the team’s running backs to separate themselves in practice this week so that the team can consolidate their snaps instead of spreading them to a four-back committee.
“It makes the (other running backs) more valuable because then they kind of fall into what their role is and they get really good at it,” Longo said. “I would love for all four of them to do that, but that's not reality.”
Strengthen the defense
Of 131 FBS teams, North Carolina is ranked 126th in yards allowed per game. After squeaking out wins against Appalachian State and Georgia State, their defensive struggles finally settled in during the loss to the Fighting Irish.
Assistant head coach for the defense Gene Chizik has continually emphasized week-to-week improvement, and UNC did show some glimpses of promise hidden in an otherwise lacking performance.
The Tar Heels held Notre Dame scoreless in the first quarter before forcing a turnover on downs and recovering a fumble in the endzone later in the second half. However, whenever the unit gives up a big play, the defense starts to break down and opposing offenses can march down the field with ease.
“It seems like there has been somewhat of a cumulative effect with that, and that's where we’ve got to drop the anchor and stop some of these,” Chizik said.
Virginia Tech has one of the worst scoring offenses in the ACC, which could allow the defense to pick itself up and make some improvements. Hokie quarterback Grant Wells leads the conference in interceptions with five, and if UNC can force some turnovers on Saturday, it could help the unit take a step forward.
“I expect us to play much better on Saturday,” Chizik said.
Let Drake Maye do his thing
Brown said it best in Monday morning’s press conference:
“You're never out of a game with Drake Maye.”
The offense has not missed a beat since the young quarterback took over, even with two of the team’s best weapons out with injury for much of the non-conference slate. Wide receivers Josh Downs and Antoine Green returned to the starting lineup on Saturday and excelled, combining for 182 receiving yards and four touchdowns.
Against Virginia Tech, Maye will face a defense that ranks near the top of the conference in most metrics. With the Hokies bringing on a new defensive coordinator and several new players, Longo said this team will look very different from the one that defeated UNC 17-10 last season.
Still, Maye has yet to be rattled on the field this season. With his most talented receivers healthy and available to play, Maye’s biggest problem may be figuring out who to throw to.
“We're going to utilize (the receivers) in a way to keep them all fresh,” Longo said. “And typically, if history rings true here, that means they’ll be more productive with less plays, because they're closer to playing at 100 percent all the time."
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