You know what’s nice about taking a step back and finding the silver linings in even the most dispiriting loss? When you have a game like Saturday you enjoy it even more instead of looking for reasons to stay mad.
The Tar Heels controlled the game throughout, the defense finally showed up for its most complete effort, and Drake Maye continued to demand national attention. The vibes in Kenan definitely were better than a week ago, and thanks to some other upsets all around, Carolina heads into next week’s matchup against Miami with a real designs on taking the final Coastal Division title.
Not to say it was all perfect, mind you. Just like you have to find the good in the bad, sometimes you need to find the bad in the good. With that in mind, let’s take a look at our weekly list of the folks who won, who lost, and who also deserves a shout out.
Drake Maye: I know this is getting repetitive, but come on — how can you not point out this generational talent under center? In a season that had already seen him light up the field, he had his biggest day in the air. He gained 363 yards in the air on 26 for 36 passing, three touchdowns and no picks. Through five games, he’s only had one interception, has already passed for nearly 1600 yards, and has NINETEEN touchdowns in the air. As if that wasn’t enough, he was the team’s leading rusher with 73 yards and two more rushing scores. So yeah, you read that right, the Tar Heels’ offense had five touchdowns on Saturday and Maye had all of them in one form or another. He’s starting to pick up buzz nationally, and the scary thing is that he is improving from game to game.
The thing that’s separated Drake from Sam Howell has been his patience. Granted, some of that is just due to how both were pressed into duty. Howell had no real reliable backup his first year, and came into the system cold, meaning some impatience was bred into his style. Drake had a year to learn the system with these receivers, and he has Jacolby Criswell behind him to allow Phil Longo to take the reins off a little. That said, what’s been fun to watch is how Drake always seems to make the right play. He’s not looking for the home run ball on every pass, just the right play to make.
The first touchdown — where the first read is clearly to Nesbit and he quickly realizes that was covered and switches to Morales, then cooly throws it high over the line so it can't be batted down — was stuff pro scouts love seeing. Maye also seems to wait to run until the absolute last second, and was reading openings better than most running backs. He must be feeling near unstoppable right now.
Which gets us to the play that had everyone’s life flashing in front of their eyes.
The stadium was in a stunned silence waiting for Maye to get up, and everyone was worried it was something serious when he went into the blue tent. In the end, he was OK and came out to lead one more touchdown drive. In my mind, there was only one thought that came up:
Major League. Such a great movie.
Here’s hoping this play was enough to scare Drake into knowing he doesn’t need to do this as often, and a way to keep Virginia Tech from blocking him low is to just slide.
Cedric Gray & Power Echols: Let’s just go ahead and let these two share the honors for the defense that was much better this weekend. It was easy to see 23 and 33 were all over the field frustrating Virginia Tech, combing for fifteen tackles (eleven of them solo) and Gray came up with something that’s been rare for this defense: an interception. Even better is that, thanks to the performance anchored by these two, the snap counts (courtesy Inside Carolina premium) were much lower than in other games. The performance from the defense as a whole is worth celebrating, as they completely shut out Virginia Tech in the second half, and only allowed one touchdown drive. That they didn’t get down on themselves to the point where that touchdown began a tsunami is also worth clapping about.
The defense isn’t miraculously fixed with one game against a bad Hokies team, but it was easily their best full game performance and it’s one they can build on. It shows hard work can pay off, and the offense helped the defense by having multiple time-consuming drives, including quickly cashing in Gray’s interception to show them they appreciated the help. By the end of the game you could see the spirit of the team was 180 degrees different than last week, and it’s exactly what’s needed if they are to contend in the Coastal.
Tylee Craft: Saturday was UNC’s cancer awareness day, and the junior got a chance to celebrate it with his teammates by being an honorary captain, in full uniform, and then roamed the sidelines as Carolina crushed the Hokies. If you weren’t aware of Tylee’s story by now, he’s currently battling Stage IV large cell neuroendocrine carcinoma, which is a rare form of lung cancer. He shared his story, and for anyone who’s had to fight any form of cancer, the sight of him getting the chemo treatments and the port implanted in his chest brings shudders almost instantly, including yours truly. His attitude, then, is just that much more remarkable.
In case you were wondering how the team felt about the fight in the wake of a great win, coach Mack Brown took the time to talk about Tylee on the field and had trouble keeping it together. While you listen to him, watch the great job the ACCN cameras did of keeping it on Tylee and how his teammates celebrated him after the win
Appreciate @CoachMackBrown sharing what it meant to honor Tylee Craft during @UNCFootball’s Cancer Awareness game, on Tylee’s 21st birthday.— Kelsey Riggs (@kelseyriggs) October 2, 2022
Spend 5 min with Tylee & you’ll know why this team loves him so much. Such an inspiration @_Ty2trilly pic.twitter.com/JQmHUOiQIU
Tylee, we are with you heart and soul, and we hope before long you’re able to be on that field in pads for real. It was great seeing you out there yesterday.
Running Backs: We really don’t need to be getting back to the days where the quarterback is also your leading rusher. The four backs for the Tar Heels only combined for 80 yards on the ground, and 53 of them came in two plays. Thus, getting 27 yards on 16 attempts is just putrid. Some of that, mind you, came from Virginia Tech deciding they couldn’t handle defending against both the pass and run, and so they stacked the line to try and keep the ground game under wraps and put pressure on Drake. Still, the best way to make them pay for that pressure is to bust some good runs, and all four running backs just came up short in that. At some point they are going to play a better defense that can afford to stop both, and someone is going to have to start to take the reins to keep Drake Maye from having to do this all himself.
Trick Play: I’m...not sure what on earth was going on here, but in the end it was probably a good thing this pass fell short to be incomplete. Maye gets the ball to Kobe Paysour, who..attempted to pass it back to Maye for, I presume, a chuck down the field? Virginia Tech had it all sorts of sniffed out and the pass from Paysour just came up woefully short. The good news is that the Tar Heels ended up converting later and scoring a touchdown anyway, but seriously, when you have all of these receivers and someone like Maye, maybe cut it with the trick plays and just rely on the guy you have under center.
Noah Burnette: The now full-time placekicker for the Tar Heels after the transfer of Jonathan Kim must have gotten tired, having to kick off seven times and kick three field goals, as all of those kicks finally bit him at the end where he had his first miss of the season. It was basically a chip shot for 39 yards near the end of the game. Joking aside, Noah showed off that the Tar Heels should be just fine with Kim heading off to another program, as his seven kicks led to five easy touchbacks, one that was returned that could have been a touchback and ended up being behind the 25, and another just short of the goal line that...ended up being returned behind the 25. If he wants to kick professionally he’s going to need to be able to do both jobs, so hopefully the knowledge that he’s now going to be the guy the rest of the year will make it to where that miss was one of the only ones he’ll have on the season.
Antonio Green only had 59 yards catching on the day, but he had the big touchdown catch after the Cedrick Gray interception, and basically owned whoever was covering him all day. His return has been so successful, and the fact the receiving corps is so deep will allow him to come in and out of the lineup as he regains his health from the early season injury...Bryson Nesbit, John Copenhaver, and Kamari Morales continue the tight end renaissance in Chapel Hill by combining for 186 yards in the air and two touchdowns. One wonders if it was stubbornness by Phil Longo over their lack of use up till this season, stubbornness by Howell to not use them, or just the height difference of Drake Maye to be able to see them better than Sam. Whatever the reason, the fact is they are a real part of the offense now and just makes life that much more easier for Maye and the rest of the receivers...Josh Downs is continuing to put down tape that’ll get him drafted early in May 2023, as he led the team in yards with 120, including tiptoe catches that would be good on Sundays...good to see Travis Shaw get some time late in the game, showing off his size and skill that had him rated as a five star prospect. He’s hit his fourth game played and so one wonders if that’s it for him to try and get him a redshirt for the year, or if he’ll get more time as he gets more acclimated.
With the Pittsburgh loss to Georgia Tech on Saturday, all of a sudden this Saturday’s matchup against the Hurricanes turns into a match for control of the Coastal. The Hurricanes will be rested, but the Tar Heels have hit the reset button. By this time next week we should know what sort of season it’ll be for the football team.