It is amazing to think that three weeks ago the sky was the limit for UNC football. Carolina had clinched the Coastal Division, their star quarterback Drake Maye was building some real Hesiman buzz, and there was even talk that they had some dark horse CFP chances.
Then Georgia Tech, then NC State, then...woof.
The season is ending very similar to how 2016 did in Mitchell Trubisky’s lone year. Their season completely collapsed, at the end, seeing them lose three in a row to Duke, State, and Stanford in the Sun Bowl. We didn’t know it at the time but it was the beginning of the end of the Fedora Era.
There’s no use belaboring the point, as the sky has come crashing all in on the Tar Heels. They are still going to a bowl game, so for one last time in the regular season, let’s take a look at the Winners, Losers, and Honorable Mentions in the ACC Championship Game.
Josh Downs-This was likely his last game in the Carolina blue. As a true junior and inarguably the best receiver on the team and perhaps in the entire ACC, he’s earned the right to earn NFL money and hear his name called in the spring. His last game was a reminder as to why he was something special: eleven receptions for 100 yards, with a long of 28. As Clemson kept players close to the line in order to try and limit the run game, Downs found himself in single coverage a lot, and Drake Maye was able to find him. He consistently shook the corner that was guarding him, and he is a weapon that will be missed. Let me go ahead and say this now — although I’m sure we’ll get a chance later — thank you, Josh, for your season and your hard work. Here’s hoping you don’t have to wait too long to hear your name next spring.
Will Hardy-With Storm Duck, Cam Kelly, and Tony Grimes out due to injury, someone was going to have to step up in the secondary and Hardy ended up leading the team in tackles overall. The true freshman got the most work he had all season against a talented group in Clemson, and the experience will help him as the Tar Heels have to figure out how they can improve a secondary that was leaky, to say the least. Hardy was responsible for one burned long pass, it ultimately led to a Clemson score, but you could argue that’s more on the coaching than on the corner considering what we’re about to mention with their prep for the game.
Clemson-They win a lot of these things for a reason. The funny thing is that if you look at the actual stats for the game, it’s hard to believe the Tar Heels lost so handily. They had 26 first downs to Clemson’s 17, 113 rushing yards to Clemsons 68, 273 passing yards to Clemson’s 317, punted three times to Clemson’s four, and controlled the ball for over 35 minutes to Clemson’s 25. They were also 9-16 on third downs. All of those stats don’t equate to a 39-10 beatdown by the other squad, but Clemson has the coaching and the players to make you pay for mistakes, and they clearly came to play like the ACC Title meant something. Hats off to them, the good news for Carolina is with divisionless football starting next season, they get a chance for revenge quickly.
Mack Brown-Something is up with this squad. Since the Wake Forest win that they have completely fallen on their face. It’s easy to point out the problems with Gene Chizik (we all have) and Phil Longo (he was my target last week), but ultimately when a squad loses three in a row like this the finger ultimately goes to the head coach. You’d already think this, and then this quote came out after the game last night:
“No, Cade had played very little all year and when he went in at Notre Dame I think he threw an interception, so we totally thought we would see DJ because they hadn’t changed all year. We stopped them the first two times. DJ was struggling. That is exactly what we thought would happen and we were hoping would happen, because he’s played good at times, but he didn’t play well last week and he was really struggling. They weren’t trying to run the ball. We thought they’d try to line up and run it down our throat like Notre Dame did, and then Cade came in and hit 20 out of 24, and 10 out of 11 the first half, and really played great.”
There’s some merit to the idea that Dabo was going to be stubborn with DJ Uiagalelei, as it wasn’t the first time that he’d pointedly stuck with the quarterback despite his struggles. The problem, though, is that after two straight weeks of playing a non-starter for quarterback, as well as losing to one from Notre Dame who was in his first start, you would think that he would at least acknowledge that there would be a chance that Dabo would switch things up. The Tar Heels even had an extra day to prepare, and you’d think all of that someone would say “hey, someone take a look at what happens if they throw Cade in there just to change things up.” It was, easily, a sign that Brown was outcoached, and it completely ruined the momentum the defense had after two straight three-and-outs. The pressure got to the offense after that.
There’s a bigger issue here, too, of the Tar Heels consistently not being ready for prime time. Three of their four losses this year were when they were an ABC featured game (Notre Dame, NC State, and Clemson), and this is a trend that continues from previous seasons in the Mack Brown 2.0 tenure. Four years should be enough time to fix these issues, and it’s fair to wonder at this point what exactly his ceiling is when he can’t get this squad over this particular hump. It’s not just that they lost — Clemson is a great team and a close loss wouldn’t have been a surprise — but that they just completely fell apart. Again. One would think there’ll be some hard conversations in the offices of the Kenan Football Center this week as UNC is at a crossroads again. They have one more season of a generational quarterback, and a schedule that’ll allow them to make some noise. They’ll need to push it in for 2023 to help continue the momentum that Brown restored in the wake of how the program was after Larry Fedora.
Drake Maye-It wouldn’t be surprising if after the bowl game it comes out that Maye was fighting something at the end of this season. After Wake Forest, the offense has been the complete opposite of what we had seen, and without question Saturday Night was Maye’s worst game as a Tar Heel. The stats aren’t bad: 26/42 for 268 yards, and ran for 24 net yards and a touchdown. The stats, though, don’t tell the whole story. He had an inexplicable fumble on an RPO handoff to Omarion Hampton at the end of the first quarter. It turned a 7-7 game into a 14-7 game before the first quarter had ended, and it completely sapped the Tar Heels of the momentum they had built up from the strong start.
Even more inexplicable is his pick six thrown in the third quarter that ended the game. It was 24-10, and while not great, the Tar Heels were only two scores down and had third and goal at the five. Maye was flushed to the right, and instead of going down or throwing the ball away, attempted to pass the ball to John Coopenhaver. The ball sailed high on Maye, and right into the arms of Nate Wiggins who ran it back 98 yards for the score. Clemson then threw a little salt in the wound by going for two, but the game was decided by that point. The question is whether it’s because he was hurt or if he just buckled to the pressure, but he was a huge reason why Carolina just didn’t succeed in the red zone, and his two turnovers cost Carolina 15 points. These last few weeks have been a reminder that he’s a redshirt freshman, and here’s hoping the break between now and the bowl game is enough for him to recover and ball out for the holidays.
Special Teams-Something that had been a source of strength all season stubbed its toe again, as there was zero blocking to keep Nate Wiggin from coming in untouched and making an easy block of a Noah Burnette field goal. It was a disappointing end to the first drive after the Maye fumble, one that ate up seven minutes and would have restored some momentum to the Tar Heels as Clemson had found their footing. The Tigers would score just a few plays later, and at that point Carolina fans had that sinking feeling that all would be lost.
Ultimately eight players caught passes for positive yardage against Clemson, a good sign considering they are about to lose Josh Downs. Antoine Green had another good game, though he had a big drop in the end zone that would have made it 14-14 instead of the Burnette field goal attempt...Kamari Morales actually had the second most yardage receiving, with 54 on only three receptions. The use of the tight ends this season has been a real revelation...it’s going to be interesting to see how the backfield operates next season with Elijah Green stepping up the way he did. It wasn’t his best game, but he had several good runs for a net of 65 yards, and caught 21 in the air. You have to think he’ll figure prominently into future plans, and bowl practice might help him get more in sync with the offense.
Time for a nice long break as we wait for the bowl game, as well as finding out what changes are coming. Here’s hoping Carolina can end on a high note.