So many nice things have been said about No. 17 North Carolina’s defense in recent days that the Tar Heels certainly would prefer to avoid a flashback involving Appalachian State.
But that’s what they’re getting with the dialogue focusing on Saturday’s matchup with the Mountaineers in Chapel Hill, N.C.
North Carolina (1-0) used a sterling defensive effort in Saturday’s 31-17 conquering of South Carolina, registering nine sacks.
That was a far cry from last September in Boone, where the Tar Heels survived with a 63-61 shootout victory against the host Mountaineers.
Even with that result, North Carolina coach Mack Brown said his team became the “laughingstock in the country” defensively.
“We’re going to be harder on them this week than we’ve ever been on them because we’ve got to go back to work and we’ve got to get things fixed that need to be fixed,” Brown said.
Appalachian State posted 40 points and 18 first downs in the fourth quarter a year ago. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik of the Tar Heels said his team doesn’t need reminders.
“Last year was tough to watch,” Chizik said. “Fourth quarter was the main issue. … We won the game, but we weren’t proud of the product we put on the field.”
There were few signs of those types of glitches in the South Carolina game. North Carolina linebacker Kaimon Rucker received national Week 1 accolades after registering 5.5 tackles for loss against the Gamecocks.
“He played relentless,” Brown said. “That’s what we’ve seen all spring and all (preseason camp).”
That was part of an overall strong performance for North Carolina.
“There are some coverage issues that we have to address, which they’ve been addressed,” Chizik said. “There was some tackling issues — open-field space tackles that we have to get under control.”
Appalachian State (1-0) had a different kind of challenge in its first game, needing a strong second half to overcome FCS member Gardner-Webb 45-24.
Coach Shawn Clark said his team’s defense needs to be upgraded by the time the Mountaineers arrive in Chapel Hill.
“That was a point of emphasis — tackling,” Clark said. “I have full confidence in our staff and our players that we’ll get that corrected this week.”
Add North Carolina quarterback Drake Maye, and the task looks large.
“You have to defend the whole field,” Clark said. “When you can’t make a team one-dimensional, that’s going to be tough for us on Saturday.”
North Carolina and Appalachian State clashed in 2019 and 2022, with the Mountaineers holding a 95-94 scoring edge. Appalachian State won 34-31 four years ago.
Perhaps there’s another factor that could be a boost for the UNC defense on Saturday. Starting quarterback Ryan Burger of Appalachian State could miss a month after suffering a hand injury in the opener, so Joey Aguilar will be the starter in the second game of the season.
Then again, Aguilar, a transfer from Diablo Valley Community College, completed 11 of 13 passes for 174 yards and four touchdowns against Gardner-Webb. He’s the program’s first player to throw four or more touchdown passes in his first game.
North Carolina is 4-0 in home openers since Brown returned as coach in 2019.
—Field Level Media
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