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UNC vs. Oregon: Three Things to Watch

A season of unexpected promise ended with a resounding thud. Can Carolina rebound to gain some momentum for next year?

San Diego Credit Union Holiday Bowl - UCLA v NC State Photo by Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images

Christmas is over and before you know it, UNC football fans can put a bow on a season that was equal parts gifts and coal. The Tar Heels, Coastal Division champions for the last time, can reach 10 wins with a Holiday Bowl victory over Oregon, fourth-place finishers in the Pac-12. The Ducks are reaching for the same milestone and would have something of a homefield advantage in San Diego, or at least time-zone advantage.

Carolina will look a bit different with several starters out of the program and in the transfer portal or opting out for the NFL Draft, plus Phil Longo and Jack Bicknell off to Wisconson, but they have enough talent to get a positive result. Here are three things to watch as UNC takes on Oregon in the Holiday Bowl.

A Josh Downs sized hole in the middle

With Josh Downs off to the NFL, Drake Maye is down his top wide receiver. Fortunately, he had two games earlier in the season to work out what that would look like. When Downs suffered a knee injury in the Week Zero win against Florida A&M, Kobe Paysour took over the slot receiver role against App State and Georgia State. He was the leading receiver on the team in both games.

With Downs out of the lineup, Paysour caught 12 passes for 165 yards and a touchdown in each game. Not only did he catch underneath balls, but he was able to stretch the field and grab some deep tosses.

Antoine Green is playing in the bowl game, so Paysour should be able to find space underneath, and if Green is double-teamed, he has the speed to get behind cover corners. If Paysour has more than five catches and 75+ yards, Carolina’s offense will be in a good spot.

Who starts in the secondary?

Carolina’s secondary has been decimated by the transfer portal. Starting cornerbacks Storm Duck and Tony Grimes entered the transfer portal, with Grimes committing to Texas A&M. Joining them in the portal are safeties Cam Kelly, Dontavius Nash, and reserve corners Tymir Brown and Dontae Balfour.

The presumed starters are Marcus Allen and Ohio State transfer Lejond Cavazos. They are not at the level that Duck and Grimes were, but the defense was so poor overall, that it may not matter. Allen has made some good, instinctual plays, and Cavazos has been burned and made touchdown saving plays. What awaits when Bo Nix attacks with Troy Franklin and Kris Hutson is anyone’s guess.

Freshman safety Will Hardy, who sealed the Wake Forest win with a diving interception, has looked competent in Kelly’s absence. He will be one to watch having taken more snaps in bowl practice with the starters, as will nickel DeAndre Boykins, who is capable of breakdowns and breaking receivers in half, in equal measure.

Run the damn ball

New offensive line coach Randy Clements apparently is a proponent of a proper rushing attack. The question is how quickly new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey can turn the offense into something it hasn’t been all season.

Carolina’s rushing attack has lacked an alpha dog until the end of the season, when Elijah Green took the slot, almost by default. With Caleb Hood out for the season and Omarion Hampton hampered with fumble issues, Elijah Green grabbed the starting job with both hands, rushing for eight touchdowns since coming on in the Duke game.

It would be an absolute thrill if Drake Maye wasn’t the leading rusher, as Carolina fans don’t want him taking any unnecessary hits on the Petco Park grass. If Green and the rest of the running back stable can combine for 150+ yards and 2-3 touchdowns, UNC will be in a good position to win the bowl game.