How Did UNC Start 4-0 This Time?
Let Us Count the (Various) Ways
By David Glenn
North Carolina Sports Network

The North Carolina football team is off to a 4-0 start for the first time in 26 years.

Back in 1997, 46-year-old UNC coach Mack Brown was leading an absolute juggernaut of a squad that turned out to be one of the best in program history, during what turned out to be the final season of Brown’s first coaching experience in Chapel Hill.

Here in 2023, the 72-year-old Brown — five years into his second tenure with the Tar Heels — is leading a far less dominant group, but one that already has shown impressive levels of talent, intellect, maturity and poise, plus the ability to win in a wide variety of ways.

There was no doubt, 26 years ago, how the Tar Heels were going to win: with defense.

Thanks to Brown’s recruiting prowess and philosophical demands, defensive coordinator Carl Torbush put together aggressive game plans designed to maximize the amazing talents of end Greg Ellis, tackle Vonnie Holiday, linebackers Kivuusama Mays, Keith Newman and Brian Simmons, and defensive backs Dre Bly and Robert Williams, among others.

Incredibly, that 1997 UNC team finished 11-1 without allowing a single opponent to surpass 20 points. The Tar Heels’ only loss was 20-3 to #3 Florida State, which went on to beat Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl and finished with a #3 national ranking, and the Heels’ 11 wins — including a 42-3 thrashing of Virginia Tech in the Gator Bowl — were by an average score of 31-11.

UNC’s #4 finish in the final 1997 coaches’ poll is arguably the best in program history. The Tar Heels’ only higher end-of-season ranking came in 1948, five years before the creation of the Atlantic Coast Conference. That Carolina team finished 9-1-1 and #3 in the final Associated Press poll, but in those days the final poll came before the postseason, so the Heels’ ranking really reflected their 9-0-1 record at the time, prior to their Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma.

While the “best” debate always involves some opinion, it’s fair to say that no UNC football team has ever had a better overall resume than the 1997 Tar Heels’ combination of NFL talent (nine future first- or second-round draft picks), final record (11-1) and end-of-season national rankings (#4 coaches, #6 AP).

The 2023 Tar Heels are different. They have some high-end NFL talent, too, starting with star quarterback Drake Maye (likely a high first-round pick), but they definitely lack the defensive dominance of the 1997 Heels, as shown in their 40-34 home victory against Appalachian State.

At the same time, the modern-day Tar Heels have shown the ability to win in a wider variety of ways than their predecessors from 26 years ago. In fact, with each passing week, these Heels have found a fundamentally different way to win.

Win #1—UNC 31, South Carolina 17
Dominate Opponent’s Offensive Line

UNC’s season-opening 31-17 victory over South Carolina in Charlotte came against an opponent with a proven NFL prospect at quarterback in Spencer Rattler.

Carolina defensive coordinator Gene Chizik diagrammed a game plan to make the Gamecocks one-dimensional, meaning their only realistic option would be to throw the ball to the point of predictability, and that approach worked to perfection.

The Tar Heels’ defense, the subject of intense criticism last season, absolutely stuffed the South Carolina running game, holding the Gamecocks to minus-two yards on 31 attempts. With South Carolina forced to pass, the Heels attacked the pocket with a vengeance and sacked Rattler a whopping nine times, for the program’s highest sack total in 23 years.

Ends Kaimon Rucker and Amari Gainer had two sacks apiece. Linebacker Cedric Gray and end Beau Atkinson had 1.5 each. End Desmond Evans and tackle Tomari Fox had the other two sacks.

Clearly, it was a true group effort, and the Gamecocks’ offensive line simply had no answers for the Carolina defense, with either its run-blocking or while in pass protection.

Many believed the Tar Heels would beat the Gamecocks. Few imagined it would happen that way.

Win #2—UNC 40, Appalachian State 34 (2OT)
Dominate Opponent’s Defensive Front

While UNC’s victory over Appalachian State in Week Two ended up being a stressful, 40-34, double-overtime win in a game that clearly could have gone either way, it also symbolized the Tar Heels’ ability to thrive without their offense leaning too heavily on Maye.

Carolina had a significant size and strength advantage in the trenches against the Mountaineers, and left tackle Diego Pounds (6-6, 330), left guard William Barnes (6-4, 320), center Corey Gaynor (6-3, 305) and right guard Willie Lampkin (5-11, 290) repeatedly opened big holes for the Heels’ rushing attack.

App State’s defense often lined up in a manner that dared Carolina to run the ball, and unlike in some recent seasons, when former UNC coordinator Phil Longo might have kept calling passing plays, new coordinator Chip Lindsey essentially took the Mountaineers up on their offer.

Sophomore running back Omarion Hampton — another big, strong body (6-0, 220) — took advantage, rushing 26 times for 234 yards and three touchdowns, all career highs. His 68-yard TD run against the Mountaineers also was the longest of his college career.

Win #3—UNC 31, Minnesota 13
Exploit Major Quarterback Advantage

In Week Three, Minnesota definitely was not physically overmatched against the Tar Heels. In fact, the Golden Gophers occasionally dominated Carolina at the line of scrimmage, and their star tailback Darius Taylor gashed the Heels for 138 yards and a touchdown on 22 carries.

However, as he did in Week One against South Carolina, Chizik ultimate made Minnesota one-dimensional offensively. While the Gamecocks could pass (when not being sacked) but not run against the Tar Heels, the Gophers could run but not pass, despite two quarterbacks testing the Carolina defense.

In the end, the Minnesota signal-callers had truly embarrassing numbers. Starter Athan Kaliakmanis completed only 11 of 29 passing attempts for 133 yards and threw an interception. Backup QB Cole Kramer offered up a wounded-duck effort in his only passing attempt, which was easily intercepted by UNC cornerback Armani Chatman.

Meanwhile, even though Minnesota minimized the Carolina rushing attack (37 rushes for 105 yards), Maye showed how a quarterback can win a game even when his team lacks a major advantage in the trenches.

Maye completed 29 of 40 passing attempts for 414 yards and two touchdowns against the Gophers. Wide receiver Nate McCollum, a Georgia Tech transfer, enjoyed his break-out game with the Tar Heels, grabbing 15 receptions for 165 yards and a touchdown.

Win #4—UNC 41, Pittsburgh 24
Show More Poise, Intellect, Maturity

Heading into its Week Four matchup against Pittsburgh, which represented its first true road game of the season, UNC knew it had another massive advantage at the quarterback position.

Unlike in the Minnesota game, however, the Panthers’ offense gained confidence early.

Embattled Pitt QB Phil Jurkovec, a pocket passer whose problems this season had included both poor pass protection and erratic downfield throwing accuracy, had several good throws and even a 20-yard run on the Panthers’ first drive, a 13-play, 78-yard touchdown march. A similar theme unfolded on Pitt’s second possession, a seven-play, 75-yard TD drive.

One play into the second quarter, UNC trailed 14-7, the Pitt crowd was going wild, the Panthers’ previously inconsistent offense clearly was gaining confidence, and the Tar Heels’ defensive game plan appeared to be in big trouble.

Importantly, nobody on the UNC sideline panicked, and the Tar Heels quickly proceeded to turn the game around. Just one possession into the third quarter, the Heels led 35-17, and they were never really threatened after that in their 41-24 victory.

So what happened in between? Carolina made a lot of big plays and smart plays, and Pitt made the sorts of bad plays and dumb plays that had troubled some recent UNC teams, especially when they were on the road.

With UNC trailing 14-7, the Tar Heels’ offense had a three-and-out series, but punter Ben Kiernan boomed a 59-yard punt. Rucker then stuffed two plays on Pitt’s next possession, which also was impeded by a false-start penalty on the Panthers.

On UNC’s next possession, on a razzle-dazzle play call, Maye hit tight end John Copenhaver for a 40-yard gain, and Pitt was penalized for roughing the passer, moving the ball to the five-yard line. Three plays later, Maye ran around the left side untouched to tie the game at 14-14.

Rucker took over UNC’s next defensive possession, too, rushing Jurkovec into an incompletion, then sacking him for a 21-yard loss. On the ensuing punt, from Pitt’s two-yard line, UNC defensive back and return ace Alijah Huzzie caught the ball at his own 48-yard line, his teammates wisely avoided the predictable block-in-the-back penalties, and Huzzie raced to the end zone almost untouched for a 21-14 Carolina lead.

In the end, UNC won largely because it played the cleaner, smarter game. Pitt finished with 11 penalties for 84 yards; Carolina had only three infractions for 29 yards. The Panthers turned the ball over three times; the Tar Heels didn’t turn it over even once.

Under any circumstances, those numbers are very positive from UNC’s perspective. Given the scary start at Pitt, though, those results were particularly impressive … and symbolic of the 2023 Tar Heels’ ability to win games in a wide variety of ways.

North Carolina 2023 Schedule

UNC 31, South Carolina 17 (Charlotte)
UNC 40, Appalachian State 34, 2OT (home)
UNC 31, Minnesota 13 (home)
UNC 41, Pittsburgh 24 (away)
Sept. 30: Open Week
Oct. 7: Syracuse (4-1) at UNC, 3:30 pm, ESPN (@ONSTailgate)
Oct. 14: Miami (4-0) at UNC
Oct. 21: Virginia (0-5) at UNC
Oct. 28: UNC at Georgia Tech (2-3)
Nov. 4: Campbell (2-3) at UNC
Nov. 11: Duke (4-1) at UNC (@ONSTailgate)
Nov. 18: UNC at Clemson (3-2)
Nov. 25: UNC at NC State (3-2)

David Glenn ( is an award-winning author, broadcaster, editor, entrepreneur, publisher, speaker, writer and university lecturer (now at UNC Wilmington) who has covered sports in North Carolina since 1987. does not charge subscription fees, and you can directly support our efforts in local journalism here. Want more of what you see on Chapelboro? Let us bring free local news and community information to you by signing up for our biweekly newsletter.