When it’s been 240 days since you’ve actually seen the football team on the field, the tendency is going to be to read A LOT into what you saw on Saturday. This also comes into play when you have a new quarterback, new defensive coordinators, a new defensive scheme, and new players all over the field.
Do yourself a favor: breathe.
On Saturday, the Tar Heels opened the 2022 season on the quizzical Week 0 by beating an undermanned Florida A&M team. There’s no doubt that the “will they/won’t they” drama of Friday played some role into what we saw on Saturday, add that with the relatively low stakes of the game and it’s easy to get boiled up over some of the...lapses we saw. Make no mistake, if the team plays with the same effort — at least on the defensive side of the ball — this Saturday in Boone they’ll find themselves 1-1 going to Atlanta. Also, even against an outgunned defense we saw a lot on offense to like.
The caution here is overarching generalizations should wait till this time next week. Even then, it’s going to be October before the Tar Heels play an ACC game and one would expect improvement by that point. With all of those caveats, let’s look at who deserves a shout out, who didn’t exactly start their season right, and other points worth highlighting.
Drake Maye: Yeah, this one is obvious isn't it? As Akil said yesterday, when you go 29-37 for 294 yards passing, five scores, and rush for 55 yards, you will turn heads. Maye trotted out as starter after being named by Mack Brown in a supposedly close competition with Jacolby Criswell. I say supposedly because we weren’t in practice and didn’t see what the coaches saw, but one thing Mack made clear this week was that he wasn’t going to do a “every other drive” deal with the quarterbacks. If one quarterback seized the reins, he was going to ride him. Maye’s first series was a three-and-out, but mostly because his pass on third down was alligator-armed. His second series was close to meeting a similar fate, instead Maye seized control:
There was no looking back after that “I say @*$& you Jobu, I do this myself” moment. The very next play was the touchdown pass to Komari Morales, and the next two drives after that would end in Maye touchdowns. Then, after the defense finally turned the ball over, the Heels were able to end the half with another score.
There’s no doubt that FAMU’s defense was worn out by the end as the drives became easier, but Drake just did not give Mack Brown a reason to get Criswell into the game, especially since the defense couldn’t really give the squad a lead where you’d feel like the game was totally out of hand. We’ll see how this momentum carries to next week where the level of competition steps up significantly.
Power Echols: Before we lambast the defense let’s take a second to appreciate the game the Charlotte sophomore had. Echols was seemingly everywhere on Saturday, leading the team in total tackles with ten, two of them for loss and grabbing a quarterback sack in the process, one of only three on the night for the team. Nine, count them, NINE of the tackles were solo tackles. He finished all of 2021 with 25 tackles, so in one game he’s already eclipsed a third of his stats from last year. It’s clear he’s been identified as workhorse up front, and he’s quickly shown he’s going to be a problem for the rest of the season for Carolina’s opponents. On a night where the secondary had its issues and Florida A&M switched it up with a dual-threat quarterback that the Tar Heels didn’t scout against, Echols stood out as someone who was able to get constant pressure in the pocket. To say the least, he was the biggest bright spot on an iffy night for the defense.
The Marching 100: Sorry, this is what you get when a band nerd writes this post. That said, it’s clear the FAMU Marching 100 was a major attraction for the game, as for the first time in a long while, the stands were still packed for halftime. If you weren't lucky enough to be there to see the performance, here’s what you missed:
The experience was clearly what folks had been hoping for when they came to see it, and the sheer power of the Marching 100 was impressive. I also know from experience that the Marching Tar Heels and Marching 100 only had a couple of practices together to get that down, which makes the combined performance remarkable. The hype around them was real, and outside of halftime they made their presence known in the stands with a wall of sound that was amazing to hear. I felt privileged to sit there and hear it, and also jealous I didn’t get this sort of experience when I was in college.
Jacobly Criswell: To say Criswell was short-changed on Saturday is putting it mildly. The thing is, some context is needed. Brown had made clear that if one quarterback seized control the team would ride with him, and Maye certainly did that. Add to this the fact that the game was still a game going into the fourth quarter, and you have a recipe that saw Criswell stay on the sideline till the very end. The one question I would have is the drive that began with about nine minutes left in the fourth. FAMU had run out of gas, the Tar Heels were now comfortably ahead, and all Drake Maye did was come in and hand off a few times for another score. You could absolutely argue that’s the time to put Criswell in for a real series, and then his second series would be what we saw at the end where Brown would, understandably, not want anyone to get hurt when he had already lost Tony Grimes and saw Josh Downs limp off after his touchdown catch (Monday update, Mack Brown stated in his Press Conference that both will be evaluated throughout the week, and we won’t know more till Saturday).
On the plus side, if Criswell needs to be used next week against Appalachian State, there will be very limited film on what he can do. You’d also assume that at this point it does Criswell no good to transfer. He’s all out of free years, so he might as well take advantage of the practice snaps he’ll get in Chapel Hill knowing that if Maye stumbles — and it’s hard to believe that at some point he won’t — he’ll get a shot. He would be understandably frustrated after Saturday, but we’ll see if this was an aberration or if Criswell has been completely passed over.
Gene Chizik: Yes, Jeremy Mousa has experience at an SEC-level school and was, supposedly, not the quarterback the Tar Heels prepped for, but allowing a 28-39 performance for 279 yards, two touchdowns, only one interception, and only three sacks against a depleted FCS opponent is not a good look for the new man in charge of the defense. FAMU did only post a net gain of 56 yards on the ground, but that was less because of Carolina’s prowess stopping the run and mostly because FAMU opted for the quick short passes that the Tar Heels continually had trouble stopping. It ultimately lulled them to sleep enough to where Jeremy Moussa was able to drop several dimes, impressing under tough circumstances.
The big question, and one that gives me pause over reading too much into this: how much was Saturday night about just getting basics down and not showing too much against an outmatched opponent? The defense had to be aware that FAMU only had six players for the offensive line — which likely necessitated their quick pass strategy as well — and that plus the nature of playing an FCS opponent could naturally lead to some complacency that would be tough to shake, especially when the offense isn’t really forcing you to buckle down due to how well they are playing. What is clear, FAMU kept fighting all the way into the fourth quarter before finally running out of steam. Respect to them, especially for a squad that called out some serious issues in their own program, but hopefully that fight will lead to some sharp eyes and ears this week as this defense gets ready to head to Boone. App State is going to be significantly tougher.
Secondary: The first quarter wasn’t even over and Tony Grimes was being helped off the field with an “upper body injury,” depleting an already thin secondary. The defensive issues the Tar Heels faced definitely weren’t because of one man being gone, but it surely didn’t help, and it magnified just how thin a margin that side of the ball is operating on. Hopefully Grimes being kept out was precautionary, but the absence was noticeable, especially after playing in all 25 games of his career so far. There’s little doubt his speed and experience would have helped mitigate some of the FAMU strategy, and the fact that the Tar Heels were slow to react was troubling. If his injury is something serious that’ll keep him off the field for some time...let’s just say the offense will need to play a lot more like they did on Saturday.
The competition for Carolina’s main running back had some clear leaders after Saturday, as Omarion Hampton shone the brightest, rushing for a team-high 101 yards, two touchdowns, and seemed to serve notice he was ready to make some noise immediately. George Pettaway (51 yards, 1 TD) and Elijah Green (72 yards) also had some noticeable moments. It’ll be interesting to see if DJ Jones (10 yards on five attempts) starts again next weekend or if Hampton won the right to run out first...Josh Downs was Josh Downs, 78 yards receiving, two scores, and some truly highlight reels stuff. His last score, though, saw him immediately hobble off the field giving everyone some heart palpitations. The good news is that he never left for the locker room, and just said the ice on his knee was precautionary...How about the love for the tight ends? Bryson Nesbit and Kamari Morales both reeled in a touchdown pass from Maye, and any suspicions about the tight ends being more involved considering how thin the Tar Heels are at receiver were confirmed. Overall, ten different players caught passes from Maye, and seven of them eclipsed double digits in receiving yards...Also a shout out to Storm Duck who snagged the lone interception for the team, having to play without Grimes. He looks healthy, and looks to get a lot of important assignments for the rest of the year.
One week down, eleven regular season weeks to go. Next up, a trip to Boone at noon as the Tar Heels face one of, if not the most, hostile road crowds of the season in Appalachian State. It should be a better gauge of what to expect for the rest of the 2022 season.