UNC Football: Using Different Narratives to Win Games

Sep 16, 2023; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye (10) looks to pass in the first quarter at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 16, 2023; Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Drake Maye (10) looks to pass in the first quarter at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports /

The UNC football program started the 2023 season 3-0, despite each win looking different from the one before. How are the Tar Heels doing it?

We hear it all the time: good football teams find ways to win games in a variety of ways.

The UNC football team has been doing just that through its first three games of the 2023 regular season. Outside of star quarterback Drake Maye, several questions revolved around the Tar Heels entering this season.

Has the defense improved? Will someone step up in the backfield and carry the load rushing the football? Who will replace Josh Downs and Antoine Green? 

While not all of these questions have been answered yet, some have, and it is a big reason why North Carolina is sitting at 3-0 heading into conference play for the first time since 2009. They have found a way to win each game this season in a completely different way than the week before it.

In game one against South Carolina, the game was won on the defensive side of the ball. The Tar Heel defense sacked Spencer Rattler nine times and created enough pressure on the Gamecock offensive line to force 16 tackles for loss along the way. The pressure up front early forced South Carolina away from the running game allowing the Tar Heel defense to create even more pressure throughout the game. They held the Gamecocks to just 17 points in a 31-17 win that was never really as close as it seemed.

The next week against Appalachian State, it was a completely different story. The Mountaineers came in with an efficient game plan to have quick pass plays and run the ball, something South Carolina got away from. The Mountaineers had success on the offensive side of the ball. App State also had a game plan to limit Drake Maye and the Tar Heels passing game, but the Tar Heels were able to establish a running game when they needed it.

Sophomore running back Omarion Hampton shouldered most of the load for the Tar Heel backfield, rushing for 234 yards on 26 carries. Caleb Hood, Elijah Green, and Drake Maye helped Hampton to a total of 319 yards on the ground against the Mountaineers, while the passing game was limited to just 208.

In week two against Minnesota, the UNC football program unleashed the passing game on the Golden Gophers. Minnesota’s game plan was the opposite of Appalachian State’s: stop the run at all cost and make Maye beat us. The Gophers certainly stopped the run game, holding the Tar Heels to just 105 yards on the ground at a 2.8-yards per rush mark, most of which came in the fourth quarter in the Tar Heels’ four-minute offense.

However, while Maye didn’t play perfectly, throwing two uncharacteristic interceptions, the Tar Heel passing game had success. Maye was 29/40 for 414 yards passing and two touchdowns. A large part of that success can be attributed to the return of Nate McCollum, who had 15 catches for 165 yards receiving.

If the UNC football coaching staff and players can keep up this level of ability to find different ways to win games, the ceiling for this team may be rising. Being balanced is important, and it would be great for every game to be 50/50 on pass/run play calls and execution. However, when there is a great quarterback involved, teams are going to have to eventually choose which one they want to key in on to stop. Stop the run? Maye can open up the passing game. Stop the pass? Hampton and Brooks can get around five yards per carry.

Each week, the offense may see defenses show a variety of looks and game plans. One week an opponent may be trying to stop the run, while the next, it will be looking to stop the pass, just like we saw with App State and Minnesota. Eventually, the opponent is hoping to confuse the offense and force mistakes. Staying flexible and being able to make adjustments on the fly is going to be crucial for this team. The defense being able to step up and make plays when it is needed (like in the South Carolina game or following Maye’s two interceptions against Minnesota) is important for the offense to know it doesn’t have to be perfect every time it steps on the field.

We still may not know much about this team and how far they can go, but one thing is for sure: they have been battle-tested in three different games and found a different way to win all three. Building off of that momentum going forward is the key, and it will start Saturday night when the Tar Heels travel to Pittsburgh to begin conference play, looking to begin the season 4-0 for the first time since….1997.

Next. UNC Football: Grading The Tar Heels Week Three Performance. dark

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