There’s something different about this Carolina Football team: Resiliency.
The reason the joke about Lucy pulling the football from Charlie Brown works when describing the UNC Football fan experience is that, no matter the coach, any time the Tar Heels have had a chance to take a step up to achieve something big, they always manage to trip up right at the last second. For the most part, this is because when things start to go wrong, the team just can’t recover and things roll downhill.
Not for the 2022 version of the Tar Heels. They’ve trailed in five of their seven games so far this season, and the two they didn’t — Miami and Virginia Tech — had significant pockets where things didn’t feel comfortable. You can quibble about the competition, but at some point you still have to do the damn thing, and for far too much of UNC Football history, this team hasn’t done it. Saturday night saw more of this, as they trailed all the way into the fourth quarter before scoring 28 straight points to turn a close game into a laugher by the end.
I think we all know the biggest reason for this, as having a guy like Drake Maye as your quarterback will shoot confidence into a lot of areas. It’s contagious, too, because as the team ended the third quarter and started headed to the student section for the fourth quarter Hell’s Bells/Can’t Be Touched combo, despite still being down by three, you just felt like they were going to win. The fourth was as dominant a quarter as you could ask for, and with that the Tar Heels can all but book their trip to Charlotte.
Let’s dive in to our weekly Winners, Losers, Honorable Mentions-and #ACCRefs moment of the week!
Drake Maye- At some point should I just copy and paste what I say about him each week? Carolina fans at this point know how good we have it, and now the kid is really starting to get national attention. A sampling:
Drake Maye’s play needs more attention— Robert Griffin III (@RGIII) October 30, 2022
388 passing yards 5 touchdowns today pic.twitter.com/0sKYwU2PRs
I picked against you at Duke, and I won. So did UNC. But I think they have covered every other time. Maye is excellent.— Scott Van Pelt (@notthefakeSVP) October 30, 2022
For the record SVP’s tweet was after me chiding him for taking Pitt +3 in “Winners,” but I did say I didn’t believe in UNC’s defense, either so I wasn’t criticizing the pick. It’s also a confirmation of “never tweet during the game” because that would have been tailor-made for a quote of me ripping the squad in the first half.
I don’t think there is a QB in the country who has carried his team as much as Drake Maye has carried UNC.— Danny Kanell (@dannykanell) October 30, 2022
Drake Maye is gonna be a superstar.— Pat Forde (@ByPatForde) October 30, 2022
You can read Michael McKay’s POG piece that delves into what Maye did statistically, but more than that it was a real stand up moment for the redshirt freshman. When it was clear the run game just wasn’t going to work on Saturday and Mack Brown told Phil Longo to stop running it and just put it on Maye’s shoulders, Maye was up for the task, and then some. It’s amazing to watch him in person, and how late in the game he used the time he was given to find the best play for more yards. This touchdown to Josh Downs was emblematic of his decision making. Look at him at first throw the quick pass to Elijah Green — which would have gotten a first down — but exhibit the patience to see that Downs was going to get open and just lay it in for the two possession lead. This basically ended the game.
It was a clinic by Maye, and it was clear that he heard what Pitt was saying about him early this week. He answered in the best way possible (side winner to the UNC Football social media team for this gem)
Oh, we’ll get back to this.
Antoine Green/Josh Downs- I hate to group these two together, but this pair of receivers have created such an imposing pair for ACC defenses that while they do different things, Maye can’t do the Maye things without them. Green had the hot start, scoring Carolina’s first touchdown with a one-handed catch that...I still don’t know how he did it.
Green finished with an eye-popping 180 yards in the air, two touchdowns, and was just a constant thorn in the side of the Pittsburgh secondary that they just didn’t know how to handle him. At this rate he’s going to hear his name called during the NFL Draft because of what he’s been able to put on tape will catch the attention of scouts. His ability to get into space to catch the ball and reel in a catch that’s meant just for him has been key to this offensive explosion.
Meanwhile, Josh Downs gets this for how he adjusted his game. The junior just couldn’t get any traction in the first half, as Pitt had done a good job keeping their eyes on him. In the second half, though, Longo switched Downs to short swing passes that effectively became the UNC run game, and he had the space to make his magic happen. This led to the touchdown above, as somehow he had one-one-one coverage deep in the red zone and the Pitt defender tripped over himself trying to keep up. Downs also was used for punt returns, and got his chance late with a 23 yard scamper that set up Carolina in plus territory. He’s a special player, and it’s good to see him be able to adjust when things aren’t going his way to start a game.
Gene Chizik- At this point, we have to acknowledge that there is something different with this defense. It’s not great...and I struggle to call it good...but ever since the Notre Dame loss, the defense has consistently figured out what the opposition is doing well and adjusts to take it away. Zero points against VT in the second half, seven points against Miami, fourteen against Duke, seven against Pitt. Carolina can’t pull off second half comebacks without the defense doing this, and it was on display again on Saturday. After letting Israel Abanikanda run all over them for the first two+ quarters, and giving up gashes for touchdowns, the defense stepped up and stopped him on several key downs, and stripped the ball from him after going up three in the fourth. The Tar Heels converted, playing complimentary football, and the defense was feeling it. Once Carolina was up by 11, Pitt had to basically abandon the run, and that allowed the Heels to focus on rattling Keldon Slovis and they succeeded. It would be nice if this was a full-game effort, but at this point we are just going to have to settle for bend-don’t-break from Chizik for at least a half, knowing he’s going to adjust after halftime. He and the defense deserves credit for improving and doing what’s necessary to help reward the offense for their effort.
Coastal Chaos- In the last year of ACC divisions, observers were hoping for one last round of Coastal Chaos where the division would come down to the last weekend and teams would continually trip over themselves until someone stumbled into the title game against Clemson. The thing is, it has mostly happened. Every squad in the division has at least two losses and games have been head-scratching with second place Duke having a loss to Georgia Tech, and pre-season favorite Miami needing four overtimes to beat Virginia without scoring a touchdown. The thing is, for true chaos you need the leader to be part of it, and instead, Carolina has feasted on the chaos to be 4-0 in the ACC, and effectively three games up on everyone else (they beat both Duke and Miami who have two losses). The division isn’t clinched yet, but with four ACC games left against UVA, the Wake squad that turned it over eight times against Louisville, Georgia Tech, and NCSU, you’re right to feel good about booking that spot in Charlotte.
I will now knock on every piece of wood I can find.
Running Game- Sadly, this isn’t just a “Pittsburgh’s defense sold out against the run” problem. The rushing attack for the Tar Heels has been mostly stuck in neutral for a few games now, and Caleb Hood’s injury near the beginning of the game didn’t help. At some point a good defense — think State and Clemson — is going to not fall for the “let Drake Maye beat us” defense, and the Tar Heels are going to have to get yards on the ground. The thing is, you wonder if Longo and Brown stumbled into something on Saturday with the screen game and swing passes, turning them into the run game by default. Either way, there aren’t going to be many games where 28 yards from non-quarterback runners will result in a victory, and you saw with Pitt where teams are now leaving a spy in coverage to try and contain Maye for his scrambles, which were mostly successful. Here’s hoping that with a UVA squad giving up an average of 147 yards on the ground they can find something next weekend.
Pittsburgh “Toughness”- Pat Narduzzi has a mantra for his program. It’s a very “hand in the dirt” style that runs the ball and tries to just grind you down. This attitude leads to a lot of “toughness” from the players, with a lot of woofing back and forth. The problem is that if you are going to talk the talk, you need to be ready to walk that walk. The clip above was from Tyler Wiltz, who had a grand total of four tackles on Saturday night. Pitt also had two guys tossed for targeting, and as Carolina was taking control of the game in the third quarter you could see Drake using Pitt’s aggression against them, faking them out to get more yards and just turning away when the sideline tried to bark at him when he would go out of bounds. If anyone would have been justified in running in for a last second touchdown just to make a point, it was Drake, but instead he humbled them even more by sliding well before the hit and just stood up to mark it was a first down. By the end Pitt was making several “surrender” motions, and at this point it looks like their ACC Coastal title defense is done.
#ACCRefs Moment of the Week
Saturday night was another not good night for the ACC officiating crew. While nothing in the game really changed the course of the results, the game itself lasted way longer than it should have, thanks to multiple reviews and a slowness from the officiating staff to make calls. There was one embarrassing moment after Carolina had gotten the score to 41-24 when Noah Burnette kicked his extra point, both squads had run off the field, the officials chatted for about two minutes before they announced a holding call on the Tar Heels.
The real kicker, though, came when the officials wasted, no lie, about ten minutes discussing the fact that one official had a pager go off, they had to look at the video monitors, only to announce that there was no change and that they had a communication issue with the replay system. Oh, and there was a time when a penalty was announced and they tried to take a down away because they had been talking about it for so long the down markers had already changed.
Millions of dollars and this conference can’t do better.
Ben Kiernan confounded Pitt all night with his punts, backing MJ Devonshire up on one with a weird spin, and in another case making a stick with a punt so good the refs thought that it had hit the leg of a Pitt player, he’s just so consistent kicking the ball that he’s a great weapon for them when needed...Eleven players total were credited with a catch, so while Downs and Green took the majority of them, they don’t get open unless the defense has to take players like Kamari Morales, Gavin Blackwell, and others seriously. It does speak to Maye’s ability as a passer that he will find the best play and spreads the ball around...Cedric Grey was a beast again up front the Heels, forcing the fumble in the fourth and recovering it to help Carolina go up 11, and leading the team with nine tackles. The whole of the defensive front is taking more responsibility as the season goes on, and if they can keep improving they’ll take a lot of stress off a...questionable UNC secondary.
A quick turnaround for the Tar Heels as they stare at a noon game in Mack Brown’s personal house of horrors, Charlottesville. Carolina has a real chance to seal the Coastal division next weekend if games go their way, and a great way to show this squad is different would be to demolish one of the weaker teams in the conference. Here’s hoping for no let down.