How many times over the years has this exact scenario played out: Carolina had an off week to prepare for an opponent they should easily beat, only to let the rust overwhelm them, stub their toe, and effectively kill any hopes for a special season? The scars of this scenario are so deep that it was a common refrain on social media as many fans were wondering when, not if, the Tar Heels would manage to mess this game up.
We may never know if this would have happened had the Tez Walker decision not come down on Thursday. The news sent a jolt both to the fanbase and clearly to the football team as a whole. The Tar Heels came out Saturday with purpose on both sides of the ball, to the point that it was 17-0 and it felt like more than that. Syracuse never really had a prayer.
Let’s dive right into this week’s Winners, Losers, and Honorable Mentions:
Drake Maye - His games have gotten progressively better, and on Saturday he had his best by far. 33-47, 442 yards, three touchdowns in the air, no picks, and an additional net of 55 yards on the ground, plus a quarterback sneak for another score. It was a game that reminded the country that he’s a potential top NFL draft pick, was a Heisman contender going into the season, and showcased exactly why he was getting all of that preseason hype. It wasn’t just that he racked up the numbers, but the variety of passes he completed were what fans had been hoping for all season. Multiple downfield throws dropped in a bucket, and multiple progression reads where he took what Syracuse would give him to keep the chains moving.
There had been some frustration that Maye’s “slower” start had been due to Chip Lindsey consciously not wanting to challenge opposing defenses and letting Drake Maye cook. There had been a stubborn adherence to the running game, and all of the passes seemed to be short. The thing is, in retrospect, the team as a whole seemed to learn that a football season is a marathon, not a sprint. You do what works to win. On Saturday, passing the ball is what it took, and the Tar Heels had a great game plan to just slice the Orange apart. Maye is hitting his stride before the biggest game of the season next week — even if the shine is off a little, thanks to the horrendous way Miami blew the end of their game on Saturday.
Defense - The country is going to focus on the “40” part of the 40-7 score, but let’s take a second to really appreciate that “7.” The defense shut Syracuse down, and it wasn’t even close. The first Orange drive just went six plays, and after Carolina lucked into a first down on their next possesion — more on that later — and scored, the defense responded by forcing a three-and-out. The Tar Heels scored again, putting Carolina up 17-0 and Syracuse into desperation mode, and all that was left to do was count the stats.
They don’t have the dominating sack numbers of the South Carolina game, but that’s mostly because Syracuse just wouldn’t trust Garrett Shrader to throw the ball. The book on Carolina seems to be out about trying to win via the run, and to their credit Carolina has solidified their front to reduce that option. The Tar Heels were credited with four quarterback hurries, a sack, three tackles for loss, two interceptions, and held a unit that had been averaging 38 points a game to seven. Now that Carolina can trust their backfield with Alijah Huzzie patrolling the area, the front of Cedric Gray, Power Echols, Myles Murphy, and the rest can feast.
Tar Heel fans have been begging for the defense to at least be competent for what seems like over a decade now. After five games, it sure looks like this squad has figured out how to play complementary football. We’ll see if they study the tape of Tyler Van Dyke to build on how bad he looked Saturday against Georgia Tech.
Tez Walker - He was nowhere near the most accomplished receiver on the day, as three players had more yards than him. However, there is zero doubt that seeing him in pads and on the field added a charge to both the team and the fans. He got a loud cheer every time he touched the ball, and thanks to the game turning into a laugher he was able to get some real-time game work, which will help him get back up to speed for next week. If you really want to know why his teammates love him, just look at his reaction to this pass to McCollum. Tez is up top and also wide open, but the play is clearly meant for Nate with Tez as a decoy.
Drake Maye deep bomb. Looks off the safety and hits the deep post pic.twitter.com/9SiXnUf6bS— Billy M (@BillyM_91) October 7, 2023
He showcased his speed and catching ability with his limited opportunities, and after the complete circus that was his eligibility fight, it’s all over and he’s where he belongs: on the field.
UNC Punt Protection - Something is clearly off with the way Carolina is protecting their kicker, Ben Kiernan, as the Tar Heels saw the other squad come up and block a kick for the second game in a row. To say Carolina was lucky on the play is an understatement, as the ball bounced right back to Kiernan, who took it and ran for the first down. In the moment, there was a ton of complaining about the ruling being that Kiernan made the line to gain — with the broadcasters being the loudest — but Kiernan paid for his run.
What happens when your punt’s blocked, you pick it out if the air, scamper for a first down and get hammered at the boundary. And no targeting???? Iron man Ben Kiernan. pic.twitter.com/L5rGJbu3l9— Lee Pace (@LeePaceTweet) October 7, 2023
So yeah, if we’re being honest, there should have been fifteen yards tacked on to the play which would have given Carolina a first down anyway. Either way, Carolina is extremely fortunate that neither instances has cost them, and special teams better get their act together before it’s more than an amusing anecdote.
The NCAA - I feel like it just has to be said, right? They should have just done the right thing from the start and saved everyone drama. Then even when they did the right thing they had to act like it was through their benevolence that they were doing it. Of course it got out shortly thereafter that North Carolina Attorney General Josh Stein — it should be noted a 2024 candidate for governor — sent a letter to the NCAA saying he would band together with other attorneys general to sue the NCAA for anti-trust violations. It really feels like it’s a matter of when, not if, the organization implodes.
British Brooks - Now it’s really nitpicking, but after a stellar start Brooks hasn’t really been able to rack up many yards lately, and it’s getting to a point where Omarion Hampton can’t leave the field. After his 103-yard effort against the Gamecocks, he missed a game for injury and then only added 25, 12, and 25 yards to his totals. Caleb Hood took a good chunk of the offensive snaps in the second half, and if he doesn’t have a higher-production game soon, it’s going to be tough to sell play action when he’s on the field.
A total of ten receivers caught pass from Drake Maye, and three of them caught a touchdown each. The most highlight-worthy one was this catch from Kobe Paysour, which really ended any hope that Syracuse had for any sort of comeback.
This play ended up being Sportscenter’s top play of the day, and it was well-deserved as that ball was likely going to be picked off if Paysour didn’t recover his own tip...Another tip of the cap to Noah Burnette who has handled his offseason demotion well, coming back to hit another four of four kicks on Saturday...Omarion Hampton had another great day, only 78 yards on the ground but had a 5.2 yard average, plus a touchdown. He’s become a real weapon on offense.
Are you ready for primetime on ABC? The Miami Hurricanes come calling next weekend at 7:30pm for arguably the biggest showcase Carolina will have until next month. A win, and fans can really start daring to dream big.