UNC Football: Get to Know your oppponent: Minnesota

MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - AUGUST 31: Tyler Nubin #27 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers celebrates his interception against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the first half at Huntington Bank Stadium on August 31, 2023 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Golden Gophers defeated the Cornhuskers 13-10. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images)
MINNEAPOLIS, MINNESOTA - AUGUST 31: Tyler Nubin #27 of the Minnesota Golden Gophers celebrates his interception against the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the first half at Huntington Bank Stadium on August 31, 2023 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Golden Gophers defeated the Cornhuskers 13-10. (Photo by David Berding/Getty Images) /

For the first time ever, the UNC Football program will face Minnesota. We sat down with Noel Thompson from Gopher Hole to learn more about the Gophers.

The UNC Football program enters week three of the college football season 2-0 after surviving an overtime scare from in-state opponent Appalachian State last week. The Tar Heels will welcome a more unfamiliar opponent to Kenan Stadium this week and look to stay unbeaten. Just how unfamiliar is North Carolina with Minnesota? Well, the two programs have never met on the gridiron before.

We took the opportunity to speak with Noel Thompson from Gopher Hole, the leading online home for die-hard Gopher fans since 1996, to learn more about Minnesota and what UNC football fans should expect when the two programs meet on Saturday. Our full interview is below.

JF: Minnesota’s defense has allowed just 16 points through its first two games and held Eastern Michigan to zero first downs in the second half this past week. Needless to say, the defense is a strong point for the Golden Gophers. How do you expect them to perform facing a Tar Heels offense led by Drake Maye? 

NT: The defense is led by defensive coordinator Joe Rossi, who I think is one of the best in the Big Ten. Rossi has developed defenses that have finished in the Top 10 in the nation the last two seasons. Minnesota doesn’t get a lot of four- or five-star players from high school; Rossi’s gift is developing talent, creating effective schemes, and making in-game adjustments. The Gophers were one of the best teams last year in third-down stops and limiting explosive plays. That is their recipe for success. I expect them to have those same goals against the Tar Heels offense. Limiting the Tar Heels on early downs and creating third and long will be key. I know the season just started, but respectfully, this will be the best defense the Tar Heels will see so far. Minnesota has only allowed one touchdown in eight quarters. Last week, they limited Eastern Michigan to only four yards in the second half. I know that they are a MAC team, but that is still quite impressive. 

JF: Feeding off of that, through the first two weeks, we’ve seen South Carolina and Appalachian State force North Carolina to lean more on the run game and attempt to take the ball out of Maye’s hands. Do you believe Minnesota will take a similar approach?

NT: Yes and no. Omarion Hampton had a game against Appalachian State, going for 234 yards on the ground. I think the Tar Heels running game is something to worry about too. If you’re Minnesota, I think the goal is to stop the run and put pressure on the QB without having too many personnel in the box. If Minnesota can control the line of scrimmage, I think that will affect the passing and running games of North Carolina. Right now, they are third in the Big Ten in yards allowed per game and first in passing yards per game. The defensive line has already shown improvement in getting to the quarterback with seven sacks (they finished second to last in the Big Ten last year in sacks).

JF: This is the first college football matchup between these two programs in history. Many UNC football fans may not know much about Minnesota other than they are in the Big Ten. Who are some of the key players that Tar Heel fans should be on the lookout for on Saturday night? 

NT: The defense is led by All-Big Ten Tyler Nubin. Tyler was named on just about every preseason award list a safety could be named on in the preseason. He leads the Big Ten in interceptions with two. He is the best Gophers defensive back since Antoine Winfield Jr. He is definitely someone the Tar Heels will want to account for on the field.  Cornerbacks Justin Walley and Tre’von Jones have played excellent so far this season too.

Offensively, the Gophers are led by QB Athan Kaliakmanis. Who, I think, is the most talented QB the Gophers have had since the late 2000s. No doubt he can sling the ball and has the legs to extend the play; he just needs to get a little more experience under his belt. Last week was the coming-out party for freshman running back Darius Taylor, who was the prize jewel of the Gophers recruiting class. He was named the Big Ten Freshman of the Week after he ran for 193 yards against Eastern Michigan.  For receivers, keep an eye out for Daniel Jackson and tight end Brevyn Spann-Ford. Spann-Ford got injured last week, so we shall see if he can play this week. 

JF: The Big Ten has a perception of being all about defense, as offensive shootouts aren’t typically the conference’s style of play. What can the Tar Heels expect to see from Minnesota’s offense? 

NT: Great question, after passing the ball over 40 times in their season opener against Nebraska. Minnesota went back to its roots in the second game, when they ran the ball over 50 times against Eastern Michigan. Last week, the Gophers rushed for 296 yards, averaging five yards per carry. It was pretty clear that head coach P.J. Fleck wanted to get the run game going after a rough start against the Huskers. A P.J. Fleck team loves to establish the run, eat time off the clock, and use RPO. I don’t see that strategy changing anytime soon. I expect Minnesota to try and establish the running game early and use RPO to keep the defense honest.

JF: What do you believe is the key for Minnesota to win the game in Kenan Stadium on Saturday night?  

NT: This is a game of strength versus strength in my opinion. I’m looking forward to seeing how this Gophers defense does against the Tar Heels offense.  Linebacker Cody Lindenburg has missed the last two games, but it’s expected that he will return for the game this Saturday. This will be a huge boost if he can play. I think the key is for the Gophers to limit the explosive plays on defense and for the offense to be balanced in the run-pass game. If they can do that, I like our chances for this Saturday.  

JF: What is your prediction of the final outcome in the first game in this series? 

NT: This game has been on the calendar for a lot of Gophers fans, as I know there will be a lot of people traveling to Chapel Hill. The Tar Heels offense scares me, but their defense gives me some hope. I do think the Minnesota defense will do enough to keep the Gophers in the game, but the offense is still going through some growing pains to consistently put points on the board. I see this as a good game, but a game where Minnesota loses for the first time this season. I say North Carolina 27-21.

Be sure to check out Gopher Hole for our interview with Noel Thompson for the UNC football point of view for the week three matchup with the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Next. UNC Football: Hampton named Doak Walker Running Back of Week. dark

Follow us @KeepingItHeel on X (formerly Twitter) and like our fan page on Facebook for continued coverage of UNC football news, updates, and recruiting.