There are few times that a game feels over from the start, but Saturday against Syracuse was pretty close. Carolina raced out to a 17-0 lead when the Orange had just nine total plays, and the party vibes were on in Chapel Hill. By the time the game was over, the Tar Heels improved to 5-0, and they turned their attention squarely to a showdown against the Hurricanes next weekend.
So what did we learn in this game that wasn’t as close as the 40-7 final score? Let’s discuss, shall we?
The Tez Walker decision changed the tenor of the season
While it’s worth lampooning the NCAA again for how they tried to throw UNC under the bus for their ineptitude — especially when the “new information” was likely the fact that Josh Stein was going to end the organization with an anti-trust lawsuit — ultimately none of that mattered when the fireworks went off and the team took the field Saturday afternoon. Walker carried the flag as the team ran on, and you could feel that everyone was charged up by the sudden turn of events.
Who can blame them? UNC went 4-0 without Walker, the support from the football staff and university at large helped get his eligibility reinstated, and they already knew what sort of offense they had with him able to run routes. While it took a couple of series for Tez to get in, when he did fans let him know just how they felt. The good vibes carried over to all sides of the ball, and in case you wondered about what sort of teammate Tez was — just look at this dime that Drake threw to Nate McCollum:
Drake Maye deep bomb. Looks off the safety and hits the deep post pic.twitter.com/9SiXnUf6bS— Billy M (@BillyM_91) October 7, 2023
Don’t focus on Nate, focus instead on the fact that the play wasn’t designed for Tez at all. He is clearly a decoy because Drake doesn’t look at his direction despite the fact that he’s open. Tez knows the ball is going to Nate, and has his hands up celebrating looking right at him before he makes the catch. It is pure joy at the fact that the play worked, not frustration that he was open for a TD and the ball didn’t go his way. He would make his presence known, especially with a spectacular catch in the second half, but mostly it seemed the good vibes just carried to everyone.
Drake Maye should be back in the Heisman conversations
The intensely frustrating thing about this season is that Maye was 4-0 going into Saturday’s game, but because he hadn’t had an eye-popping stat day he had dropped back some in terms of being college football’s MVP. It also didn’t help that Chip Lindsey seemed to be taking the air out of the ball and cutting Maye’s stats.
On Saturday, Maye reminded the country why NFL scouts are so high on him and he was mentioned in those conversations in the first place. Maye consistently passed the ball to the open receiver, moving the chains and just rope-a-doping Syracuse into submission. Ten players caught passes from Maye, two of them — McCollum and Kobe Paysour — finished with 100 yards or more. His three passing touchdowns all went to different players. He also added 55 yards on the ground, and just kept making good decisions. He slid more, he threw the ball away more, and in general played the most complete game he has all season.
The scary thing for the rest of the ACC: he still can be better. The Paysour TD run was a bit of luck as the pass was behind him, but Paysour tipped it back to himself and made an amazing catch in stride to get the score. You could see Drake was still a hair off here and there on some of the throws, but he also had some ridiculously accurate balls, including the beauty to Bryson Nesbit for the 23-yard score. With a full week to prepare with all of his pass catchers, the sky seems to be the limit of what this offense can do.
The Defense deserves praise
The Appalachian State game threw everyone off, as the Mountaineers had no problem scoring for a good chunk of the game. But if you take that game out, the UNC defense has been better than what fans wanted out of them going into the season. Fans were just hoping for the squad to be competent and get a few stops, but Appalachian State aside they’ve been pretty dominant in the other games of the season.
They’ve given up 17 against South Carolina, 13 against Minnesota, 17 against Pitt (remember seven points were on a punt return), and finally a mere seven against Syracuse. Also keep in mind, 14 of those 17 points to Pitt were the first two drives. The rest of that game saw the defense just surrender three points. Saturday, though, was easily this group’s best performance and against a squad that hadn’t exactly had trouble putting up points. The Orange came into the game averaging over 38 points a game, and even put up 14 against Clemson last weekend to put the game in doubt towards the end. Carolina just outright shut them down.
The Tar Heels wouldn’t allow the Orange to have a drive longer than seven plays until the second half, six drives ended in punts, two in pickoffs, and the Tar Heels managed two sacks while only allowing 92 yards of rushing. The addition of Alijiah Huzzie to the defensive backfield has been a game-changer, as he’s added a ton of stability in the back to allow the front to do their work. Mack Brown kept saying the defense had made some serious strides going into this season.
They have a huge test next week with Miami. If they pass, look out.