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Omarion Hampton's career day lifts UNC football to win over Appalachian State

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UNC sophomore running back Omarion Hampton (28) runs to the endzone during their game against Appalachian State on Saturday, Sept. 9, 2023 in Kenan Stadium.

Omarion Hampton knew exactly where to run.

With 11 minutes left to play in the first half of the No. 17 North Carolina football team’s eventual 40-34 double overtime win over Appalachian State on Saturday, the sophomore running back lined up in shotgun formation.

After securing quarterback Drake Maye’s handoff, Hampton took two steps forward. He usually powers through the middle with his physicality, but on that play, he did something different. Seeing a split-second opening on the left side, Hampton switched gears and burst into open space. He was in the end zone less than 10 seconds later, going untouched for all 68 yards.

On a night when Maye never found his receivers in the end zone, Hampton stepped up with three touchdowns and 234 rushing yards. The Tar Heels hadn’t won a game without a passing touchdown since 2015 against Virginia.

For a team that has typically relied on Maye’s arm for offense — UNC ranked 11th nationally in passing but just 67th in rushing last season — Hampton’s breakout performance is a testament to the work new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey has done toward expanding the ground game. 

Maye has only thrown two touchdowns, along with two interceptions, so far this season. Meanwhile, Hampton has tallied five rushing touchdowns. But, in the words of Drake Maye, "If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it."

“[The offensive line was] just opening up holes,” Hampton said. “So if they opened up the hole, I gotta hit ‘em. That’s my job. So it was really just my offensive line all night.”

Head coach Mack Brown made a game-time decision to start Hampton after graduate running back British Brooks had been nursing a lower body injury all week. And, for most of the night, the sophomore carried UNC’s otherwise stagnant offense.

After the Mountaineers scored their first touchdown to go up 10-7, Hampton soon broke free for a 31-yard gain, setting up a UNC field goal. When App State led 24-20 with 10 minutes to play, the Tar Heels looked to Hampton once again.

Engulfed by multiple Mountaineer uniforms, the Clayton, N.C. native bulldozed his way to a seven-yard touchdown run.

“If we run for 200 yards on the ground, I think at some point you just gotta stick to the script,” Maye said. “We’re running the ball down their throat, so why change it?”

Trailing by seven points in overtime, North Carolina relied yet again on its standout running back to convert on third-and-two. Hampton took it a step further, blasting up the left side for a 17-yard score, and North Carolina never trailed again.

Despite Hampton’s career night, there are still many unanswered questions about how UNC’s offense will look moving forward. But, given that the team lacks a dependable deep ball threat for the time being due to Tez Walker's ineligibility, UNC’s electric air-raid offense may not be a viable option.

Amidst the uncertainty surrounding the passing game, the Tar Heels know they can trust Hampton to make a play on the ground in the meantime.

“Give [Hampton] some time, some experience, some coaching and he’s just gonna keep getting better,” senior linebacker Cedric Gray said. “The sky’s the limit for him.”

@danielhwei

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com

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Daniel Wei

Daniel Wei is a 2023-24 assistant sports editor at The Daily Tar Heel. He has previously served as a senior writer. Daniel is a junior pursuing a double major in business administration and economics.