Due to some other obligations, I had to catch this game on replay on Monday evening instead of having watched it live. Fortunately, we’re entering UNC’s second open week, so I can pretend like I delayed writing this as a strategic move to have more weekday content. Yeah, let’s go with that. Anyways. The Heels pulled out another close victory against Duke on Saturday, in the process creating some distance between them and second-place Georgia Tech (excuse me?) in the Coastal Division, cementing bowl eligibility, and winning a late road game for just the second time in Mack Brown’s second tenure in Chapel Hill. The game followed what is at this point a familiar script, and the studs and duds are probably no surprises to anybody who’s paid attention to UNC football this season. But there’s still value in talking about the things we think we know — so without further ado, let’s get into it.
Soon, I’m going to run out of superlatives to describe Drake Maye. Between his preternatural arm talent and his already-insane post-snap processing, he’s playing the quarterback position in a way we just haven’t seen in Chapel Hill, and it’s an absolute joy to experience. Against Duke, his numbers were as good as they’ve ever been: 28/38 for 380 yards and 3 touchdowns to no interceptions, and on the ground, he added 14 non-sack rushes for 99 yards.
To the eye, though, Maye didn’t seem quite at the level he’d established through 6 games. Part of it was the three fumbles, two lost, that might not be part of his quarterbacking stats but certainly changed the game and are starting to become a worrying pattern for the young quarterback. But I don’t think that’s the whole story, or even that close to it — neither lost fumble was really on him, anyways. You can’t complain much about better than 70% completion, but Maye missed a couple of fairly routine throws that would’ve been huge difference-makers, including a deep post to J.J. Jones he didn’t adequately load up for and a deep ball on the sideline to Antoine Green that needed to be on the outside shoulder like the pass he threw to open up the game. Maye’s also got a lot of work to do on his pocket movement — more than a couple of times he ran himself into pressure for no discernible reason other than that he knows that scrambling has usually ended in positive results if he needs to bail. That’s gotta be reined in, maybe with Phil Longo calling fewer of his QB draw-option pass plays, because the passing offense only really works when Maye actually tries to work the pocket instead of fighting it. But such is life with a freshman quarterback — there are always going to be tendencies and mechanical quirks to clean up. The good still massively outweighs the bad, and we’re lucky to watch Maye operate.
Running Backs: B+
Caleb Hood seems to have entrenched himself as the starter at running back, and put in another solid performance with 10 carries for 48 yards to go with 5 catches out of the backfield for 32 yards and a Christian McCaffrey-esque touchdown. It looks like Hood and the coaching staff are figuring out the kind of runner he is right now, which is to say a primarily power/gap one, and the gameplan has done a really nice job of adjusting to that from a scheme that’s been quite zone-heavy the past few years. Hood’s been particularly effective with playcalls that get him to the edge, where he’s got the speed to outrun edge defenders and the power to run through secondary players and a lot of college linebackers. Behind him, Omarion Hampton had a couple of good carries as he continues to impress as a similar kind of runner, but made a crucial mistake in lining up on the wrong side of Maye on a quick pass play and causing a fumble. Hampton saw one carry after that, but then ceded action to Elijah Green, who we hadn’t seen since mop-up duty against Florida A&M. Green had 3 carries and two went for touchdowns, one from 2 yards out and the other from 20, and looked explosive in a way the UNC running offense hasn’t had since George Pettaway was phased out of the rotation. Green could see more action going forward, but he’ll have to improve in pass protection, where he had a fair few poor reps.
For everything great about Drake Maye’s game, his pass-catchers might have been better. The star of the game, of course, was Josh Downs, whose 9 catches for 126 yards were pretty much all highlight-reel material: from two deep grabs where he high-pointed, plucked, and quickly protected the ball from defenders in good position to a third-down conversion on the sideline where he snagged a slightly too-high ball from Maye while somehow keeping a toe inbounds, to the game-saving fourth-down conversion where he collected a Duke defensive back’s ankles on a pivot route. His fellow upperclassman Antoine Green bookended the UNC offense — he caught a 53-yard pass on the first play of the game to set up the opening field goal, then fought back to the ball and tightrope-walked the sideline before catching the game-winning touchdown on UNC’s last offensive play of the night. He had two more catches in between, one deep down the sideline to set up Hood’s touchdown catch and one across the middle to convert a 3rd-and-long that would lead to Green’s 20-yard scoring run, for a final, very him-like line of 4 catches for 112 yards and a touchdown.
Other than the two of them, everybody else did their jobs well. Kamari Morales caught UNC’s first touchdown of the day in the red zone on a schemed rub route across the field; he’s becoming one of Longo’s primary red zone weapons. Bryson Nesbit continued to work the middle of every defense he faces, and while he couldn’t break anything free like he often has, his 3 catches for 20 yards were chain-movers. J.J. Jones has really come into his own the past couple of weeks, and he had two more impressive grabs this game for 49 big yards. For a position group that seemed precarious to start the season, the wideouts on this team have really acquitted themselves nicely.
Offensive Line: B-
Like I said, Maye did not make it easy for his guys up front this game, regularly complicating clean pockets and being a tick quicker to scramble than he probably should have been. But he also dealt with a fair bit of legitimate pressure, much of it coming from the right side — Jonathan Adorno, in his first start stepping in for the injured William Barnes, had a pretty rough go of things. Fortunately, Asim Richards and Ed Montilus on the left kept things clean enough on their end to, more often than not, give Maye some space to move into and operate, or to scramble through. Richards in particular has had a total revolution in play from last season; it’s hard to believe he’s the same guy we saw. Things were a little rougher in the run game and this was the first time we saw playcalling on run plays to try to mitigate the offensive line’s weakness going straight-up against defensive fronts — a lot of run plays were called off tackle or even farther to the outside, with about 5 speed outs of a kind we hadn’t seen yet this year. This group is really athletic and gets to spots really well, so that kind of thing works as they re-learn how to block with power as a group, but in the meantime, that kind of thing is still going to hurt in -and close situations.
Defensive Line: C-
This is where I really don’t have anything new to say. In the run game, the defensive line was mostly fine, maintaining gap integrity — UNC’s poor results in the run game were more a result of miscues by the people behind them, as we’ll get to in a second. In the past few weeks, this group does seem to have taken a step in run defense — they’re not the playmakers they should be, but they are at least, for the most part, limiting damage and giving the guys behind them good chances to clean up. Jahvaree Ritzee has really acquitted himself well lately, getting into the backfield regularly and making a touchdown-saving tackle early in the game after Duke quarterback Riley Leonard was already past him. Des Evans has started to entrench himself as a solid run defender as well, with 5 tackles around the line of scrimmage. In pass rush, though, we saw basically what we’ve been seeing the whole season — pass rushers without plans, moves, or bull-rushing technique, slowly condensing the pocket with raw strength and giving opposing passers more than enough time to make their reads and deliver, giving them confidence to hit throws they haven’t been hitting all season. On non-blitzes, Leonard was never bothered, and, like every adequate quarterback UNC has faced, looked positively special as a result.
Starting with Noah Taylor at Jack — after a pretty miserable first half where he was kind of caught between maintaining the edge and spying Leonard, the second half saw the defense commit him to the latter role and perform admirably, culminating in the final drive, where his excellent mirroring and keeping himself clean allowed him to tip Leonard’s last pass and create Will Hardy’s game-sealing interception. Taylor’s best work has been as a pass rusher this season, but in this game, relieved of some of those duties, he really shone in space and in run cleanup. Moving to the off-ball linebackers, Cedric Gray continues to be the clear best player on this side of the ball. He had a relatively quiet 6 tackles, but had one of UNC’s few tackles for loss and added a pass breakup for good measure. Power Echols lead the team in tackles with 8, but also had a rough time — he’s still learning the ropes in coverage and attacked the wrong gap a couple of times in allowing big rushing plays for the Blue Devils.
I’ll start with some positives. DeAndre Boykins is playing really well when he’s asked to do something other than cover. I don’t mean that pejoratively, all that not-covering stuff is key to Chizik’s “Star” position. He’s a great blitzer, picking up UNC’s only sack of the game, and comes downhill hard in run support, like on the fourth down stop he shared with Gio Biggers. Tony Grimes had a very good first two-thirds of the game, breaking up a pass on a great click-and-close and making a couple of tough plays in run support. Storm Duck avoided seeing balls thrown his way, which is a major improvement over how he’d started the season. Biggers had probably his best game in coverage, allowing just one catch on a fair few targets. And Cam Kelly kept the mistakes to a minimum, racking up 6 tackles and only blowing a couple of pursuit angles. But the rest was ugly. Grimes was toasted on Duke’s first touchdown of the fourth quarter after taking a bad false step into the backfield, and then let that mistake compound into bad football the rest of the game — culminating in a halfhearted grap at a running back headed his direction on his way to score Duke’s go-ahead touchdown. (I think he’d been blocked well enough that he didn’t really have a chance at the play, but you’d like to see that effort anyways) Boykins really struggles as a nickel corner, allowing running backs, tight ends, and slot receivers alike to get space and make big plays. When targeted, Duck still isn’t really contesting catches, though he’s discouraging more throws than he was to start the season. And generally, this unit just isn’t making plays. That thing I said earlier about decent quarterbacks like Leonard looking otherworldly against UNC? Even with a subpar pass rush, it’s only possible with an equally underwhelming secondary.
Special Teams: C+
UNC’s special teams have been pretty solid throughout the season, so seeing a few foibles here was a surprise. The big one was a badly missed 52-yard field goal by Noah Burnette, which seemed caused at least in part by indecision on the sideline about whether or not to kick it. But there was also near-disaster on a kickoff mishandled by Omarion Hampton, who made things a little spicier than they had to be by not understanding the difference between kickoffs and punts — the former is a live ball for both teams from the moment it crosses the 45-yard line, so muffing it doesn’t really matter. Hampton’s had a couple of miscues as kickoff returner now, so that’s a situation worth monitoring. Otherwise, things were unremarkable — punt and kickoff returns were minimal, and Ben Kiernan’s two punts were both decent.
A week after at least getting something right in his game preparation and shutting down Miami’s run game and daring Tyler Van Dyke to beat him, Gene Chizik reverted to start-of-season form and basically didn’t prepare anything until the second half, when he deployed Taylor as a permanent quarterback spy (I could be extra snarky and question the decision to use your best pass rusher as a spy, but it was effective, so I won’t). Duke is top-25 in the country in rushing yards per game and top-20 in rushing yards per attempt. It’s their identity and the thing that has elevated them from laughingstock to halfway respectable in Mike Elko’s first year, and yet, after showing the ability to key in on a phase of the game when scared of it, Chizik seems to have just... chosen not to, and his unit was predictably gashed as a result, slow to read keys and quick to lose the edge and get beaten to the outside.
On offense, a bunch of ink has been spilled about the failed trick play on the drive that inspired Duke’s 14-point spurt to go ahead with just over a minute left, including Mack Brown himself talking about how mad it made him with the kind of vehemence I’m still waiting to see him direct towards the defense. I don’t have a problem with going for a killshot there, honestly; the offense had been winning deep all game. I do have a problem with the way that play was designed, because it never looked like anything other than what it was, making it extremely easy to defend. The play that failed against Virginia Tech was gorgeously drawn up. This one shouldn’t have survived the planning stages. Other than that, Longo called a really good game, some of it obscured by Maye’s inconsistent pocket management.
As for Mack himself, the question is going to keep coming up: What is it about night games that makes this team just collectively derp in a way their opponents never seem to? In 12 games away from home at night, this is just Brown’s second win in this tenure in Chapel Hill, and it wasn’t exactly an inspiring one. At least this team is finding ways to win, which is a welcome change from last year. All we can do is hope they keep it up.