UNC and Appalachian State will meet in an encore of a game that no one on either side was really pleased with last season.
The Tar Heels built an early lead, but a funny thing happened on the way to their blowout — App scored an eye-popping 40 points in the fourth quarter only to see their furious comeback fall just short in a 63-61 Carolina win. The UNC basketball team had five games where one of the teams didn’t hit the 60-point mark last season. App State’s hoops squad had 14.
“We were a laughingstock on defense,” UNC coach Mack Brown said this week while recalling last season’s matchup. Throughout the preseason, he’s used the fourth quarter debacle against the Mountaineers as a motivational prod for his team.
UNC will have the same quarterback who authored their five-dozen points last season. Drake Maye gives the Tar Heels perhaps the most stable quarterback situation in the ACC. Aside from interceptions on back-to-back plays against South Carolina last week, Maye is displaying the same form that put him on the Heisman trophy shortlist each of the last two years.
Brown saw some flaws in his franchise quarterback last week, however, and heading into the App State game, the fact that they came late in the game is even more troubling.
“Our offense didn’t finish,” Brown said, pointing out that the Heels didn’t cross midfield in the fourth quarter against the Gamecocks and were scoreless for the last 21-plus minutes of the game.
Maye, who threw for 269 yards, is supported by running back British Brooks, who turned in a 100-yard rushing day as the Tar Heels ran for 168 yards in the game. Brooks missed all of last year with a serious knee injury.
“What an amazing story,” Brown said. “And he did a tremendous job in pass protection because they came after Drake a lot.”
Speaking of coming after quarterbacks, the UNC defense was the story of the opener, recording nine sacks and stopping South Carolina repeatedly in the red zone. The Tar Heels D will be an additional concern for App State, whose quarterback situation is already far less settled than Carolina’s.
After a preseason competition to see who would replace Chase Brice, App’s starting quarterback for the last two seasons, coach Shawn Clark awarded the job to Ryan Burger, a redshirt freshman who appeared in one game last year as a backup to Brice. Burger won the job over juco transfer Joey Aguilar, who threw for 21 touchdowns and nearly 3,000 yards in two years at Diablo Community College, adding more than 600 yards rushing.
Clark said, perhaps prophetically when he announced his decision, “Both quarterbacks can lead our offense, move us down the field and take care of the football.”
He would need both in the opener. After Burger led App on an early scoring drive, throwing his first career touchdown pass in the first quarter, the starter suffered a hand injury and had to leave the game. He’ll miss another three to four weeks.
Aguilar was able to step in and rally the Mountaineers past an upset-minded Gardner-Webb team. He threw a touchdown on his first play from scrimmage and finished with four touchdown passes — a school record for a quarterback making his debut. Aguilar completed 11 of 13 passes for 174 yards.
“Joey came in, his first collegiate pass for App State is a touchdown, and that gave us the spark we needed,” Clark said.
“You have to go out there and just play, no matter if it’s first, second, third,” Aguilar said. “It’s always next guy up, and you just have to be prepared.”
It will be first this week as Aguilar faces a Tar Heels defense that appears to be much improved over the one that struggled to finish last season’s game.
“They’re a different football team on offense and defense,” Clark said.
App also has a strong running game. In addition to Aguilar’s threat as a mobile quarterback, the Mountaineers got 117 yards and a touchdown from running back Nate Noel. Plus, the UNC defense isn’t the only one sporting an upgrade. App’s D forced three turnovers in an eight-minute span in the second half to help put away Gardner-Webb.
Clark pointed out the importance of protecting Aguilar after Gardner-Webb put pressure on both quarterbacks last week. The key, he said, will be keeping UNC’s offense off the field. “Any time Drake Maye has the ball in his hands, they have a chance to score a touchdown.”
There were plenty of touchdowns scored, on both ends of the field, last year. While the scoreboard operator may not be as busy this time around, it sounds like the game will be no less competitive.