There was so much that was familiar in the UNC 47-45 double overtime win over Duke Saturday. It was the second overtime game the Heels had played this year, also against an in-state opponent playing like the world was watching, the Tar Heels were a double-digit favorite and once again let multiple double-digit leads slip, and Drake Maye is once again the football hero we all expected.
This one did feel different, though. Based on their next two opponents it’s completely possible this will be Carolina’s last win of the regular season, but at least it was a home win on Senior Night against an archival, and likely the last game we’ll see Drake Maye play in Kenan. There was also such a release of tension when that game was over that to see the field be rushed by so many in Kenan couldn’t help but to warm your heart. It was a college football classic, the reason we watch the sport.
There’s a lot to unpack so let’s get right to the winners, losers, and honorable mentions.
Noah Burnette-The Tar Heels don't win without Burnette, full stop. Carolina’s red zone offense was stagnant, and the redshirt junior who lost his job after missing several pressure kicks last year has delivered every time he’s been called on this season. Last year he faltered against N.C. State in a similar situation to the Duke game, but this year he rewarded the offense for driving down the field late by kicking the 43-yarder to tie it up. He then did what he had done all night and kicked another game-tying field goal to force double overtime. He has only missed one kick all year, has a 48-yarder in one of the worst places to kick a football (Pittsburgh), and is a perfect 38-38 on PAT’s. Burnette is the one shining part of a special teams unit that has been bad this season, and it’s good to know he can be counted on as he’ll likely be asked to contribute again over the next couple of weeks.
Drake Maye-He didn’t have his best performance, but Drake Maye finished his final home game in 2023 in spectacular fashion. Multiple deep passes in a bucket to Tez Walker, an amazing pass to Bryson Nesbit who caught it even though he was interfered with, scoring both the first and last UNC touchdowns of the game himself, wizard moves with passes while being wrapped up and laterals as he’s going down, and of course, one leap to try and maximize yardage which caused the stadium to hold its breath. He gave it his all and gave fans a night to remember, and don’t be surprised to see some of this as they talk about his draft stock in the spring.
The Tez Walker/Omarion Hampton combo-Hampton faced off against a tough Duke defense and racked up 169 yards, a touchdown, and did it all with a long of just 19 yards. Hampton should have had more touches as the Tar Heels got deep into the red zone, and it appears Chip Lindsey finally figured that out late in the fourth quarter as just kept getting feeds from Maye. There’s a real chance that he could finish FBS as the rushing leader, and he’s going to be really important as the Tar Heels face two more stout defenses in Clemson and N.C. State to round out the season.
Walker meanwhile was cheated out of some home games in Chapel Hill thanks to the NCAA, and had to be carried off the field against Georgia Tech with a hit that caused the game ending fumble. He followed all of that up by catching the most yards in a game all season (162), and his speed was something that had to stand out to all of the NFL scouts in the press box. It did highlight one weakness of Drake Maye’s game in that Maye seemingly still has trouble fully appreciating the speed of his receivers. One can’t help but to wonder if a full season of work by Tez would have tightened that up. Either way, he was spectacular and if this was his last game in Kenan it was also one to remember.
Gene Chizik-It’s clear that the defense now is getting worse, and the fact that Duke’s third string quarterback was able to put up the numbers he did against the Tar Heels show just a poor game plan against the Blue Devils. This was never more apparent than the touchdown Duke scored to take the lead late in the fourth quarter. It was a fourth and seven, and even analyst Tim Hasselbeck was saying that the Tar Heels didn’t need to send all their defenders as making it difficult to read a pass for him was more important. Instead, Chizik called the blitz, made it really easy for Grayson Lofton to make his read, and with no help behind the defender it was an easy score. Maybe Chizik thought that if Duke completed the pass it was better to let them score and have the most time to get back down the field, but I don’t want to give him credit for that. The collapse of the UNC defense this season has been hard to watch, and it’s a big reason fans aren’t optimistic about their last two games of the season.
Larry Porter-The special team unit for Carolina is a disaster. Tychaun Chapman should know the rule about advancing the ball on a kickoff, and the fact that he let the ball be dead at the 1 played a huge role in the interception thrown by Maye. After the defense made a great play to almost force a fumble, the punt unit wasn’t ready for a fake by a team that was ready to pull out all the stops. Finally, there was zero awareness that Duke may try to steal a possession with an onside kick. All of which played a huge role in keeping Duke in the game. Special teams are going to cost Carolina at least one of their remaining games at this rate, and it’s time for Porter to just concentrate on running backs and for someone else to handle special teams.
Rushing the field takes-I don’t know what’s worse: compiling about rushing the field or finding ways to make it about your program just so you can insert yourself into the conversation. Saturday night was the last game in Kenan Stadium in 2023, and likely the last game of a generational quarterback against an archrival. The game was a classic, back and forth with great plays and high tension. Seniors attending this game entered Carolina under the veil of a pandemic, missing out on a whole year of the full athletic attending experience. All of this aside, just let folks have fun! That’s what sports are ultimately about, it’s why we watch, and you can’t simultaneously criticize a Carolina crowd for not caring about football and then caring so much that they rush the field when they beat a rival. For all we know it may be the last moment of joy they get this football season.
Bryson Nesbit had an amazing day, with seven catches for 68 yards and a couple of spectacular catches including a late touchdown reception while he was being interfered with. There was a lot of questions about whether or not he would even play, he not only played he thrived...it was a rough night for Hasselbeck in as he seemed to hang on a little too long with a simultaneous reception and seemed convinced that Carolina had an illegal man downfield on the second OT 2 point reception, the problem is the college rule allows for a lineman to go three yards — which replays show that’s where he was. That said he thinks Maye should be the first pick and will be a big cheerleader for this so it’s ok...Cedrick Gray was left hung out to dry on the fake punt, unfortunately whiffing on the tackle that allowed the first down. What’s amazing is that Carolina rarely returns punts anymore because of their offense, so why bother setting up a return? Just guard against the fake and let Drake, Omarion, and the offense cook.
A big test awaits the Tar Heels in Clemson next weekend. The Tigers have found their offense, and they are looking to go on a roll to end the season. We’ll see if the momentum from this week carries over.