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Preview: Three keys to a UNC football win over Minnesota on Saturday

UNC sophomore quarterback Drake Maye (10) celebrates his go-ahead walk-in touchdown in second overtime during the football game against Appalachian State at Kenan Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023. UNC squeezed past Appalachian State 40-34.

After a nail-biting 40-34 win in double overtime against Appalachian State last weekend, North Carolina will face Minnesota at Kenan Stadium on Saturday.

Following a game in which the Mountaineers totaled nearly 500 yards, head coach Mack Brown emphasized on Monday that UNC's defense needed to improve at keeping opposing offenses off the field.

With an undefeated Golden Gophers team coming to Chapel Hill, the Tar Heels will have their work cut out for them. Here are three keys for UNC to start the season 3-0 for the second straight year.

Get the defense back on track

One week after recording nine sacks against South Carolina and holding the Gamecocks to 17 points, the defense “made twice as many mistakes” against App State, according to Brown.

The Mountaineers exploited North Carolina's sagging coverage, as App State quarterback Joey Aguilar made quick throws to his receivers before UNC's pass rushers could bring him down.

"We’ve got to do a better job of playing tighter coverage and making sure we can allow our guys to get there,” Brown said.

Though the defensive line didn’t have enough time to sack Aguilar, they were able to pressure him.

UNC hurried the signal-caller nine times, causing Aguilar to complete just 51 percent of his passes.

“The pressure was there,” assistant head coach for defense Gene Chizik said. “We were getting there, it just on paper didn’t look as sexy as when we had nine sacks. There are a lot of things we can do better on the rush and coverage element, but both of those have to work together in conjunction with each other.”

Limit penalties

App State drew first blood against UNC with a field goal, capping off a 19-play drive that milked eight minutes off the clock. However, the Tar Heels could’ve stopped the drive at its onset.

UNC stuffed a run from the App State 3-yard line on third-and-12, but senior defensive lineman Kevin Hester Jr. was called for a face mask on that play, giving the Mountaineers 15 yards and an automatic first down.

“The penalties defensively killed us,” Brown said. “We had about four third downs and fourth downs that turned into first downs because of penalties.”

Against the Golden Gophers — who have committed just five penalties this season and are tied for fifth nationally in average time of possession — the Tar Heels can’t afford to commit unnecessary penalties.

Let the game flow

Although sophomore quarterback Drake Maye usually spearheads UNC's offense, it was sophomore running back Omarion Hampton who excelled on Saturday. Hampton erupted for 234 rushing yards and three touchdowns to propel the Tar Heels past App State.

Maye didn't throw a touchdown pass all game, exemplifying the team's trust in Hampton during late-game situations. It also showed that offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey is going to stick with what works.

"Talking to [the App State coaches] after the game, they were doing their best to keep Drake from throwing over their head,” Lindsey said. “That’s why Omarion Hampton had a big day.”

Hampton's ground game and Maye's arm talent will likely be two focal points of Minnesota's scouting report. In order to outplay the Golden Gophers' defense, which has allowed just 16 points through two games, the Tar Heels may have to improvise once again by committing to what is working for them.

Whether it's another monster performance from Hampton or an air raid attack by Maye, the Tar Heels will enter Saturday with numerous scoring options.

“You never want to depend on the performance of one guy,” Brown said. “If you do, and he has a bad day, or if he gets hurt, then you don’t have a team.”

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