No. 17 Tar Heels are hoping for more defensive improvement as Appalachian State game arrives

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.”

QB STATUS

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.

RUNNING TOUGH

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.

STAT WATCH

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.

RECENT HISTORY

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.

NOTABLE

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.

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll

Copyright © 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, written or redistributed.

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