It’s been such a joy to come to this post this season up until now. In each of the first six games a Carolina fan would have had reasonable expectations to see the team lose and while it would be crushing, there would be a way to shrug it off. We didn’t know what to expect from the Tar Heels this season, but game after game it sure looked like something special was building. After last week’s win over Miami, the Tar Heels were set for a magical November.
Yet something tells us all as fans to keep that hope under wraps. You may remember last week that I put the word “easiest” in quotation marks, because we all knew that when the hope is the highest is when you fall into the pit of despair. Some fans will say they saw this coming, others thought it would be next week in Atlanta, either way it is crushing just the same.
The silver-lining here is that Carolina still has a chance for a generational season. They are still in the driver’s seat to get to Charlotte for the ACC Championship game and that can lead them to another New Year’s Six Bowl game. Their quarterback is still going to be drafted highly in the NFL, and an Orange Bowl berth may be enough to allow for Maye to play football in January.
With that, let’s get into Saturday’s winners, losers, and honorable mentions. I’m sure you’ll understand if the second section is a little longer than the first.
Tez Walker-He was the easy choice for Player of the Game. On a night when it seemed like no other receiver would help out Drake Maye by making simple catches, he was as sure-handed as ever. His touchdown catch was really the best highlight of the game, as it came over double-coverage from a perfectly placed pass by Maye. It was yet another highlight that you’ll see during NFL draft coverage, and in three games he’s quickly shown that this will probably be his only season in Chapel Hill. What could have been a real horror story is turning into a redemption for Tez, and no matter how much this season goes downhill you can be happy that he’s getting to finally get some good fortune on his side.
Omarion Hampton-It’s not his fault that Chip Lindsey and Mack Brown forgot he existed in the second half. Hampton ran 19 times for 112 yards, an outstanding 5.9 yards per attempt against one of the worst run defenses in the country. What’s even more remarkable is that his longest run was only 18 yards, so it’s not like he boosted that total with a huge gain and little rushes from there. I’ll talk about this more in a bit, but he’s clearly coming out as a winner because Saturday showed just how valuable he is to the UNC offense.
Noah Burnette-It says something about how much confidence fans have gained with you when they think you should have been on to kick a 37-yard field goal late in the fourth to bring Carolina to within one instead of the decision to go for a 4th and 12. Burnette gave Carolina their first lead of the game with a pressure-packed 43-yarder at the end of the first half, and when things were starting to fall apart he gave Carolina yet another lead with a chip shot. Burnette was someone who kept missing these easier kicks last year when the pressure was on — we all can’t forget NC State — but ever since getting his job back earlier this season he’s been money. He should have had the chance to go 3-3.
Chip Lindsey-Being an offensive coordinator isn’t easy, and as much as you and I think we could do this job, keep in mind the level of work it takes to get to a position such as this in football let alone a P5 school. While you can quibble with how things have gone so far, up until Saturday night, on the whole, you could at least say that Lindsey was willing to see what was working against the opposing defense and do what it took to win.
On Saturday, though, he completely abandoned what was working — using Omarion Hampton to consistently put Carolina short yardage — and instead force fed a bunch of Drake Maye throws. It’s like he took the wide receiver drops personally. “These calls are working, the guys just aren’t making plays! I’ve got to keep giving them a chance to make a play!” Look no further than when then Cavs scored in the third quarter to get back within three. On their previous drive, Lindsey had Hampton run it for 18, then Maye pitched an option for eight, then Nate McCollum missed a catch, then Maye ran it for 10, then Hampton ran it for eight, then Maye passed it to Nesbit, finally Maye ran it in. It was a great mix of running and passing that kept Virginia off balance to the point where when Maye ran it in, they were solely focused on Hampton.
Once Virginia scored, the next series was a jet sweep to McCollum that lost a yard, a sack, and a surrender check down to British Brooks. A poor punt set up Virginia for a field goal, and the next series started with five more passes — including the called back touchdown pass to JJ Jones — before finally giving it to Hampton again. The offense works when the run and the pass are balanced, and for whatever reason on Saturday Maye and his receivers were just a little off. Virginia has one of the worst run defenses in the country, and why they didn’t just continue to pound the ball against them to melt clock and take easy yardage is just mind-boggling. It’s a mistake that Lindsey is going to have a tough time living down.
Nate McCollum-I’m not going to harp on the kid here because I suspect no one is going to be harder on him than Nate himself, but while Maye was definitely off with some throws, McCollum dropped four or five easy passes that should have kept the offense moving. You don’t want to lose confidence in a kid, and you could see by the end the Tar Heels were trying to force feed it to him to get his head back into it. Sometimes, though, you have to say it’s not your night, go somewhere else, and take a week in practice to get it straight. McCollum has been too important to this team to let this define his season but he was a big part of Saturday’s loss.
Carolina Football National Relevance-Games like Saturday are why your own fan base will convince themselves that something will happen. As Jack Morris noted yesterday this was UNC’s sixth loss as a double-digit favorite in the last four seasons. There was absolutely no excuse for that performance at all. Zero. You have a generational quarterback, a running back proving to be NFL caliber, an NFL caliber receiver, one of the best tight end groups in the conference if not the country, and a decent defense with a couple of stars. You showed up against an SEC team, a Big 10 team that won on the road Saturday, three ACC programs, and a Group of Five team that has been a thorn in your side. Yet with your history you have to know that any game can be a loss, and that you are still capable of that performance is why the program will never be mentioned with the likes of Alabama, Georgia, Michigan, or Clemson. A loss in any other game this season except Campbell would be explainable. Any other game. This one isn’t, and until this program can show that it can actually take itself seriously and act like it’s more than just a mediocre school that kills time before basketball, local fans and national media will never take them seriously. Nor should they.
Cedric Gray continues to be a defensive star for UNC, as he had a ridiculous 18 tackles for the Tar Heels on Saturday, 11 solo and also had a hurry with one tackle for loss...Armani Chatman picked up a interception for Carolina, and while I didn’t spend a lot of time lambasting the defense, it was a bright spot on a meh night for them. To be honest, it feels like had the offense actually been able to produce the defense would have been reseted and better...Bryson Nesbit had a beautiful TD catch that was almost all YAC, and it’s a shame he wasn’t able to see much more action...UNC showed just how much they missed Ben Kiernan Saturday as the duo of Tom Maginness and Cole Maynard didn’t have any punt longer than 39 yards, consistently setting up Virginia with amazing field position. That hampered the defense further. The absolutely pathetic 33.7 yards per kick is making it to where Carolina might want to just considering going for it on all fourth downs, or seeing if Burnette wants to try his luck punting the ball...Drake Maye was clearly asked to do too much, and yet his stat line was still decent—24/48, 347 yards, two passing touchdowns and a running score. His lone pickoff came while he was being sacked, otherwise he took care of the ball. Unfortunately he did contribute to the offensive struggles Saturday, as while half of his misses can be attributed to drops from the receivers, the other half seemed to be off of miscommunication and poor throws. It’s becoming a theme for Maye this season, and it’s one he needs to clean up soon as his game is going to get picked apart more in the coming months.