CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina’s defense looked different in its opener compared to last season. This weekend’s game against Appalachian State offers another chance to show how much has changed.
The 17th-ranked Tar Heels (1-0) opened against South Carolina with a strong performance from a defense that struggled to stop anybody last year. The low point came against the Mountaineers (1-0) in a shootout win despite the Tar Heels surrendering 40 fourth-quarter points.
That performance has been mentioned around the UNC program frequently in the roughly 12 months since. With the Mountaineers’ visiting on Saturday, the Tar Heels can show whether the nine-sack battering of the Gamecocks was more than just one good outing.
“You can’t ever forget performances like that, right?” UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik said of last year’s wild game in Boone. “Although you’d like to. It’s hard to forget.
“(Players will) relive that in their minds some this week for sure. We won’t be hyperfocused on it. We won’t be hyperaware of the way that day unfolded. What we will do is go back obviously and look at when we weren’t playing well, why did that happen?”
The preseason focus on the Tar Heels has locked on star quarterback Drake Maye as a Heisman Trophy candidate at the helm of a high-powered attack. But getting more out of the defense in Chizik’s second season is vital to UNC’s hopes of contending in an Atlantic Coast Conference race, one jolted by Duke’s takedown of preseason favorite Clemson on Monday night.
That unit will take on an offense relying on a former backup after the season-opening win against Gardner-Webb. Joey Aguilar came on in relief and threw four touchdown passes in the win, though coach Shawn Clark pointed to a need for better play up front.
“We have to be able to maintain blocks and sustain blocks,” Clark said. “That (not) just our offensive line. That’s our receivers, our tight ends, everyone involved.”
Clark said App State starter Ryan Berger is expected to miss three to four weeks due to a first-half finger injury in the Gardner-Webb win. Aguilar, a junior college transfer, completed 11 of 13 passes for 174 yards and four touchdowns — including a score on his first program snap.
“Right now Joey Aguilar is our quarterback,” Clark said.
The Tar Heels’ first game under new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey showed a stronger emphasis on the ground game, both in getting the backs more involved while cutting down on Maye’s carries.
Omarion Hampton had 16 carries while British Brooks had 15 compared to just four for Maye. That marked the first time UNC had two running backs with at least 15 carries since blowing out Miami in the 2020 regular-season finale.
North Carolina’s nine sacks are the most by any Bowl Subdivision team this season, including among the 13 teams that have already played twice. UNC’s sack total against the Gamecocks was its highest in any game since 2000.
This is the deciding matchup in a three-game instate series. Appalachian State won the first meeting 34-31 in Chapel Hill in 2019 by blocking a tying field goal by the Tar Heels. That was the first meeting between the teams in nearly 80 years. The Tar Heels won last year’s meeting 63-61 in a game that featured 1,216 total yards and 17 touchdowns.
UNC is trying to open with three straight nonconference wins for the second straight year. Previously, the Tar Heels hadn’t done that since 2009, though those wins were later vacated due to NCAA violations.
The Mountaineers are 2-9 against AP Top 25 teams since joining the FBS in 2018, though they won at then-No. 6 Texas A&M last year the week after the UNC loss.
Appalachian State (1-0) at No. 17 North Carolina (1-0), Saturday, 5:15 p.m. ET (ACC Network)
Line: North Carolina by 18 1/2, according to FanDuel Sportsbook.
Series record: UNC leads 2-1.
WHAT’S AT STAKE?
It’s a big nonconference instate matchup with Appalachian State’s long run of success — including a win in Chapel Hill in 2019 — and UNC aiming to continue climbing the national rankings behind star quarterback Drake Maye.
Appalachian State QB Joey Aguilar vs. UNC’s pass rush. Aguilar took over for the injured Ryan Burger in the first half of the opener against Gardner-Webb and threw a TD pass on his first snap for the Mountaineers. He threw for 174 yards on 11-for-13 passing with four touchdowns in that game. He’ll face a UNC defensive front that generated nine sacks in the season-opening win against South Carolina, the program’s best total since 2000.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Appalachian State: RB Nate Noel. The fourth-year runner ran 24 times for 117 yards and a score against Gardner-Webb. He ran for 1,126 yards as recently as two seasons ago.
UNC: RB British Brooks. The sixth-year back missed last season due to injury but took a leading role in the South Carolina win. With UNC shifting to a heavier run emphasis this year, Brooks ran 15 times for 103 yards to go with three catches for 18 yards against the Gamecocks.
FACTS & FIGURES
The Tar Heels moved up four spots in the AP Top 25 poll. … They won 63-61 in last year’s game in Boone, a wild affair that included the Mountaineers scoring 40 fourth-quarter points. … Maye threw two interceptions to start the year in a game played without his two projected targets in transfers Devontez Walker ( NCAA transfer eligibility ) and Nate McCollum (lower-body injury). … This ends a three-game series announced in February 2017. … Appalachian State is 2-9 against AP Top 25 teams since joining the Bowl Subdivision ranks in 2014, though they won at then-No. 6 Texas A&M last year the week after the UNC shootout. … Tar Heels coach Mack Brown became the first coach to win 100 games at two FBS schools, with 158 wins at Texas and the South Carolina win marking his 100th at UNC. … Appalachian State is going for its first 2-0 start since winning its first seven games in 2019.