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Preview: Three keys for UNC football to win home opener against Appalachian State

20220003_Rhyne_FBALLvsAPP-1.jpg
Freshman quarterback Drake Maye (10) runs the ball at the game versus Appalachian State at Kidd Brewer Stadium on Sept. 3, 2022.

The North Carolina football team will welcome fans back to Kenan Stadium on Saturday as it hosts Appalachian State in its home opener.

After UNC's strong season-opening win against South Carolina, UNC head coach Mack Brown told reporters on Monday that his team has already earned back a lot of the respect it lost during last season’s losing streak.

Still, Brown was quick to point out that respect is “easy to gain back and hard to keep.”

Now, the Tar Heels will work to keep their respect as they face an App State team that exposed its weaknesses on defense a year ago. Here are three keys for UNC to remain in the win column:

Continuing stellar defense

Although UNC beat App State on the road last season, the process was far from perfect. North Carolina squeaked out a 63-61 win despite surrendering 40 points in the fourth quarter, a performance that Brown said made UNC the "laughingstock of defense in the country."

"Last year, it was tough to watch," said Gene Chizik, UNC's assistant head coach for defense. "The fourth quarter was the main issue, so there were a lot of things that we obviously had to clean up from that game."

UNC’s defense exceeded expectations against South Carolina, holding the Gamecocks to 17 points. The Tar Heels held an opponent to under 20 points only once in 2022.

Moreover, North Carolina recorded nine sacks last Saturday — more than half of last season's total of 17 and the second-highest single game total in program history since the NCAA began recording sacks in 2000.

“We have a load on our shoulders this weekend to go back and prove that the narrative that we changed [against South Carolina] is really real,” Brown said.

Stopping the run

App State will provide a different challenge to the blossoming UNC defense by looking to relentlessly run the ball.

The Tar Heels held South Carolina to -2 yards of total rushing on Saturday. Meanwhile, the Mountaineers produced 150 yards on the ground in their season-opener against Gardner-Webb.

Junior running back Nate Noel accounted for 117 of those rushing yards against Gardner-Webb, and in last year's matchup against UNC, he ran for 116 yards and two touchdowns.

“[App State is] going to try and run the football all the time,” UNC offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said. “That’s what they do. That’s who they are.”

UNC’s defensive improvement has certainly been noteworthy, but it must continue to prove itself this weekend against a physical App State team.

“One of the biggest question marks of this week is, 'Can we play well and win a game and be celebrated, and then come back the next week and play better?'” Brown said.

Clean up the offense

While redshirt sophomore quarterback Drake Maye ultimately led a shorthanded Tar Heel offense to a win on Saturday, the absence of primary receivers Tez Walker (due to ineligibility) and Nate McCollum (due to injury) was evident.

“Tez and Nate, getting those guys back is really critical for us,” Lindsey said.

Maye connected with nine different targets, but threw two uncharacteristic second-half interceptions. In 14 games last season, he threw just seven.

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The Mountaineers know better than to underestimate the Heisman Trophy hopeful, though. 

“Any time you have a quarterback like Drake Maye, we’re going to have our work cut out for us,” App State head coach Shawn Clark said in a media availability on Monday. 

North Carolina's offensive line protected its signal-caller well, not allowing any sacks of Maye against South Carolina. If UNC is going to prevail once again in week two, Maye's supporting cast will need to match its performance against South Carolina.

@BenMcC33

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com