Gophers at No. 20 North Carolina
- Kickoff: 2:30 p.m., Saturday
- Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, N.C.
- TV/Radio: ESPN/100.3-FM
The marquee matchup of the Gophers' nonconference slate is here. The Tar Heels went 9-5 last year and reached the ACC title game behind Drake Maye, who passed for 38 TDs as a redshirt freshman. Maye is considered by many to be a top-five NFL draft pick, so a challenge awaits for the Gophers defense.
THREE BIG STORY LINES
About that Drake Maye guy
Maye, a 6-4, 230-pounder, certainly looks the part of an NFL prospect. He's completing 72.6% of his passes and has rushed for 842 yards and eight TDs in his career. If the Gophers can apply pressure, Maye might show a weakness. He threw two interceptions in the opener against South Carolina.
Maximize the red-zone scoring
Last week against Eastern Michigan, the Gophers left a possible 15 points on the field on possessions that reached the Eagles 5-yard line or better. They had a fourth-down QB bootleg snuffed out and settled for field goals on three occasions. They'll need to be better to win this game.
A rare venture into ACC territory
How rare is it for the Gophers to play an ACC team on the road? Technically, they never have. While they played at current ACC members Pittsburgh in 1992 and Syracuse in 2009, both were Big East members at the time. They've played ACC members Clemson, Georgia Tech, North Carolina State and Virginia only in bowl games.
TWO KEY MATCHUPS
Gophers linebackers vs. UNC RB Omarion Hampton
The Tar Heels aren't a one-trick pony with Maye. In their 40-34 double-overtime win over Appalachian State, Hampton rushed 26 times for 234 yards and three TDs. The likely return of Gophers LB Cody Lindenberg from injury comes at an opportune time.
Gophers OTs vs. UNC edge Kaimon Rucker
Rucker, a 6-1½, 265-pound senior, plays the "Jack'' or edge rusher position and leads the Tar Heels with two sacks, three QB hurries and 5.5 tackles for loss. Depending on where Rucker lines up, Gophers tackles Aireontae Ersery and Quinn Carroll will be tasked to keep him off QB Athan Kaliakmanis.
ONE STAT THAT MATTERS
North Carolina's third-down conversion rate (16-for-26), which ranks fifth nationally. The Gophers defense has allowed eight of 21 first down conversions, 65th nationally.
The Gophers will win if … they stop North Carolina consistently on third down; they get another productive game from Darius Taylor and Sean Tyler to keep the chains and clock moving; they find a way to score touchdowns instead of field goals in the red zone, and they win the turnover battle.
The Tar Heels will win if … their defense plays more like it did against South Carolina than it did against Appalachian State; their pass rush (nine sacks in two games) gets to Kaliakmanis, and Maye gets into a rhythm while passing and finds avenues to hurt the Gophers with his running.
Offensive efficiency will be key for the Gophers, who've scored three touchdowns and kicked five field goals through two games. Coach P.J. Fleck made it a point for the offensive line and running game to assert their will against Eastern Michigan, and a big reason why is because they'll likely need to control the clock to beat North Carolina. On defense, the Gophers are pressuring opposing QBs, and that's important to keep Maye in check.
My expectation: Oddsmakers have North Carolina favored by a TD, but look for a tight game. Dragan Kesich's big left leg could come in handy again. Gophers 27, North Carolina 24