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Minnesota Football vs. North Carolina: The Elite, The Meh & The Ugly

Self-inflicted wounds were the story of the game

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 16 Minnesota at North Carolina Photo by Lee Coleman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The Minnesota Golden Gophers (2-1) return home after suffering their first loss of the season in a 31-13 setback against the No. 20-ranked North Carolina Tar Heels (3-0).

The Elite

Darius Taylor. Three games into his career at Minnesota, the true freshman seems to have solidified himself as the present and future RB1 for the Gophers. He was their most reliable offensive weapon against the Tar Heels, averaging 6.3 yards per carry en route to 138 rushing yards and one touchdown on 22 carries. In an ironic twist, I saw more than a few fans calling for even more carries, as head coach P.J. Fleck and offensive coordinator Greg Harbaugh sought to be more balanced in their play-calling. Taylor’s workload is a potential issue moving forward, with Bryce Williams sidelined with an undisclosed injury, Sean Tyler needing to earn back trust after his fumbles, and Zach Evans evidently in the doghouse to start the season.

The Minnesota run defense. A week ago, North Carolina running back Omarion Hampton averaged nine yards per carry, racking up 234 rushing yards against Appalachian State. But he and British Books were bottled up by the Gophers. Hampton was limited to 46 rushing yards on 13 carries, and Brooks finished with 25 rushing yards on 11 carries. As a team, the Tar Heels averaged 2.8 yards per carry. Even with top linebacker Cody Lindenberg missing his third straight game, Minnesota was up to the task of stifling the North Carolina rushing attack.

Jack Henderson. The Southeastern transfer had his best game in a Gopher uniform, leading the team with 11 total tackles, including eight solo stops. Henderson also made an impressive interception of Drake Maye in the second quarter to set up Minnesota’s first scoring drive.

Dragan Kesich. Is it bad that the Gopher offense continues to have to settle for field goals rather than scoring touchdowns? Of course. But at least Kesich’s leg has been reliable. His 23-yard field goal in the second quarter gave Minnesota their first points of the game, and he tacked on a 45-yard field goal on their opening drive of the second half.

The Meh

The Minnesota pass rush. The Gophers recorded at least two sacks for the third straight game this season, with Jah Joyner and Kyler Baugh combining for one and Danny Striggow responsible for the other on a shoestring tackle of Maye. But far too often the defensive line failed to set the edge and squeeze the pocket, allowing Maye to escape the pocket and extend plays.

The Ugly

The Gophers’ passing game. There is a reason people were optimistic (or even excited) about the passing game coming into this season. Athan Kaliakmanis is talented. Minnesota has talent at wide receiver and a mismatch nightmare at tight end. But the promise of that talent has yet to bear fruit three games into this season, plagued by a lack of consistency and explosiveness. Kaliakmanis struggled mightily — specifically in regards to the touch on his passes — and finished 11-of-29 for 133 passing yards and an interception. When his throws were on target, his pass catchers were dropping them or slipping on the field. Poor execution across the board.

Third down defense. The Tar Heels’ first touchdown of the game came on third and long, foreshadowing a difficult day on third down for the Gopher defense. North Carolina finished 12-of-17 on third down. In the first half, the Tar Heels were 3-of-4 on third and long. Minnesota fared much better in the second half, turning away North Carolina all three times they forced a third and long. But getting off the field on third down proved difficult all game long.

Breakdowns in the secondary. It was unlikely the Gophers were going to shut down quarterback Drake Maye. But they didn’t have to make it so easy for him. His 46-yard touchdown pass on the opening drive was the result of a breakdown in coverage. The defense tried to sub in a handful of players on third down in the second quarter and was completely discombobulated when Maye snapped the ball, allowing him to find a wide open Kamari Morales for 55 yards to put the Tar Heels at the goal line. I thought cornerback Tre’Von Jones played well at times but overall there were far too many uncharacteristic mental mistakes in the secondary.

Cole Kramer’s lone pass attempt. Oof.