The Minnesota Golden Gophers (2-0) hit the road for the first time this season with a trip to Chapel Hill on Saturday, where they will face the No. 20-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels (2-0). The Tar Heels bested border rival South Carolina in their season opener but needed double overtime last week to survive an upset bid by Appalachian State.
The Gophers are 3-10 against ranked opponents under P.J. Fleck.
Can North Carolina score on offense?
Obviously the headliner on offense for North Carolina is quarterback Drake Maye. As a redshirt freshman last year, the Tar Heels’ starting signal caller threw for 4,321 passing yards and 38 touchdowns, earning ACC Player of the Year honors among other accolades. Maye is a prototypical NFL quarterback, with the size, arm, athleticism, and instincts to become a franchise quarterback at the next level. He has also been heavily involved in the run game at North Carolina, rushing for 698 yards and seven touchdowns on 184 carries last season. Maye has shown good decision-making on zone read plays and can be elusive in space.
But it may surprise you to hear that the Tar Heels are trying to be more balanced on offense this season under new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. His predecessor, Phil Longo, left to take the same position at Wisconsin. Running back British Brooks, who missed all of last season due to injury, returned to the field in the season opener and led the way with 15 carries for 103 rushing yards. But Brooks was sidelined with a lower body injury last week and Omarion Hampton carried the load, gashing Appalachian State for 234 rushing and two touchdowns on 26 carries.
The emphasis on the run game has also come out of necessity, as the Tar Heels have struggled to replace Maye’s top targets from last season. Kent State transfer wide receiver Tez Walker was supposed to be their deep threat but he has been ruled ineligible this season. Sophomore Kobe Paysour leads the team with 15 receptions for 139 receiving yards and a touchdown.
North Carolina also has a trio of tight ends they’ve tried to work into the passing game, though John Copenhaver, the only one with a touchdown catch, reportedly has a broken hand.
All eyes will be on the Gophers’ linebackers in this game. They desperately need top linebacker Cody Lindenberg to be cleared after missing the first two weeks of the season with a soft tissue injury. Minnesota’s inexperienced linebackers held their own in Week 1 without him but struggled with their run fits at times in the first half against Eastern Michigan in Week 2.
Please tell me the Gophers will be able to score
Two weeks into the season, I don’t have a good feel for this Tar Heel defense. Last year, North Carolina was terrible on defense, allowing 165.2 rushing yards per game (85th nationally), 271.3 passing yards per game (115th), and 30.8 points per game (101st).
The Tar Heels looked stout up front in Week 1, limiting the Gamecocks to -2 yards rushing and recording nine sacks of quarterback Spencer Rattler. The defensive line alone accounted for 13 total tackles and 7.5 sacks, though it was Jack linebacker Kaimon Rucker who earned Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week honors after recording eight total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks. But in that same game, Rattler threw for 353 passing yards, averaging 9.1 yards per attempt as his pass catchers racked up yards after catch in the open field.
The Mountaineers had much more success on the ground against North Carolina, racking up 219 rushing yards. They gave the Tar Heels’ linebackers fits, attacking the edges of the defense with convoys of blockers. North Carolina did manage to pressure Appalachian State quarterback Joey Aguilar with nine hurries, but they failed to register a single sack.
It’s tough to say how the Gophers will attack this defense, especially after leaning on the passing game in Week 1 and riding the rushing attack in Week 2. The offensive line will certainly need to protect quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis when he drops back to pass against a formidable defensive front. If running back Darius Taylor can continue to find success between the tackles while Minnesota attacks the edge more with Sean Tyler, that could open things up for their offense.
But who will score more points on Saturday?
The Gophers have never beat a ranked opponent on the road under P.J. Fleck. While I think the Tar Heels have their fair share of flaws and are vulnerable, I am very skeptical of this Minnesota offense. It will be a competitive game but the Gophers’ lack of offensive firepower will allow North Carolina to pull away in the second half. North Carolina 27, Minnesota 13.