Three weeks in, the Tar Heels are 3-0, and yet Drake Maye has not been the main reason Carolina has ended up with that record.
To be clear, in all three games we’ve seen some of the magic that Drake Maye promises and what we saw last year. The ability to deliver a ball to a wide open player down the field, his improvisational ability, his strength in running when need be—all have been on display. The problem is that it feels liek Drake has had a bit of a restricter plate put on him, and it’s causing the car to hiccup once in a while. Still, in all three games, others stepped up to either keep Carolina in it or make the quarterback’s mistakes basically meaningless.
So the question you have to ask—how is this engine going to run once that plate is finally off?
Let’s talk a little about that and more as we go into this week’s Winners, Losers, and Honorable Mentions.
Nate McCollum: Our player of the game showed there’s a reason that preseason projections were so high for the Carolina offense. One big piece was Tez Walker, but the other was McCollum. On Saturday, UNC showed why they went after McCollum in the transfer portal. Maye targeted McCollum with six of his first seven passes of the game—the other was basically a throwaway—and McCollum rewarded that trust with chunk plays and one amazing touchdown catch.
I was in section 111 for this catch, so it happened right in front of me. This angle doesn’t really even show all that Nate had to do to get this ball. First, he slows up as Maye had slightly underthrown it—not surprising, considering it was a 50 yard bomb off his back foot. Then, he has to turn and reach out beside the defender to bring it in, all while keeping hold of it as he goes awkwardly to the ground. It’s an amazing play. He is a game-changer on offense, forcing a defense to have to account for him. If Walker is truly gone for this season—we still don’t know what will happen in the legal system—McCollum will be key for the passing offense going forward. Meanwhile, McCollum wanted to make sure his teammate wasn’t forgotten:
3rd Downs: The biggest disparity in the game that illustrates how this game turned into UNC domination was the 3rd down conversion rate. Minnesota only converted 3/12 of their third downs, while the Tar Heels earned a first down or better on a staggering 12/17 of theirs. Carolina was able to stay on the field and extend drives, even when their running game only gained 105 yards. Meanwhile, the Gophers struggled when they couldn’t just hand the ball off to their star running back Darius Taylor, because it was third and long. Similarly to how Carolina defended a singularly-focused offensive attack from South Carolina to open the season, the Tar Heels were able to shut down the other facet of Minnesota’s game and absorb the success of their strength. Against the Gamecocks, it was letting Rattler throw but never letting them run. With Minnesota, they gave up runs—Taylor had 138 and the team had 170—but the defense made plays when they needed them to get the Gophers behind schedule, and they defended the pass well.
Granted, one pass was so bad it was a literal arm punt when Minnesota was in field goal range, but still, Don Chapman had to actually catch it.
This is an elevation of the defense. Now, at least, the Tar Heel defense can do a good job of making sure the weak part of a opponent’s game doesn’t bite them, and they can eventually get off the field. The concern is a team like App State, that has a decent quarterback and can run the ball. It’ll be interesting to see, once they get into conference play, if the defensive unit is able to continue to make strides.
Student Section: Once British Brooks dove into the end zone with five minutes left in the fourth quarter, putting Carolina up by 18, the remaining students immediately lit into a “Free Tez Walker!” chant. It was audible enough to get on the broadcast, and when the in-stadium camera found him there was a loud roar. The team made the statement that they haven’t forgotten Tez by arriving with the shirts you saw McCollum wear post game, and the students deserve kudos after a tough couple weeks on campus for continuing to call attention to this absurd situation.
UNC Running Game: It was the polar opposite of last week, as neither Omarion Hampton nor British Brooks could get anywhere close to the production they put up against App State. It wasn’t a case of going pass-only—the Tar Heels attempted 26 non-Maye rushes, and the overall balance was 40 pass attempts to 37 rushes. That’s the type of work you want to see, but Carolina could only muster a net of 46 yards on the ground. Without sacks, Maye only trailed Hampton on the ground by a yard in Saturday’s box score. It was disappointing to see after going wild last week.
The silver lining—the Tar Heels still pounded in two touchdowns against a massive Minnesota defensive front. The Tar Heels clearly emphasized the pass more this week, but hopefully this rushing total is an anomaly instead of what to expect going forward.
ESPN: There are two parts to this. First, based on the social media reaction and the discussion with my fellow writers, the announcing team of Beth Mowins and Kirk Morrison struggled mightily with the action. I couldn’t find out if they were there in person or calling the game remotely, but let’s just say there’s a reason I don’t go on Twitter during games anymore. Mowins has her strengths in other sports, but this feels like something beyond the usual toxic sexism that pops up on social media when a woman dares to announce a men’s sport (to hear the anonymous social media masses tell it).
The other thought is the commercial breaks. Regular commercial breaks are three minutes long, and the break between the quarters is four. Not to mention you have a nearly 20-minute halftime. We even got the ol’ “commercial, kickoff, commercial” combo, which is just as fun whether you are in the stadium or watching at home, waiting 10 minutes between a scoring play and the start of the next offensive series. There really needs to be a standard break across college football, or some other way for ESPN to sell their ads so folks who actually want to watch these games can get more action.
Other UNC receivers: Nate McCollum had 15 catches; the rest of the group caught 14. Maye did spread the ball around to several players, and found the wide open Kamari Morales in the second quarter, but McCollum stepping on the field clearly took a ton of the work away from the rest of the corps. Carolina can’t afford to be focused on just one guy, and hopefully this was more about getting McCollum comfortable with game action after basically sitting for two games.
We need to talk about Drake Maye. Akil Guruparan had a good breakdown in yesterday’s offensive grade in the things that are, at least, concerning about how his season has started. He has as many touchdown as interceptions, and the two picks he threw on Saturday were just head-scratching. The thing is, you can throw a lot of theories out there about why he’s struggling and they are all valid—from the new offensive staff, to the new players surrounding him, to the emphasis on crambling less and getting better at throwing the ball away. It’s all part of the growing process to show he can end up in the NFL.
The really good news is that, on Saturday, we saw a game that required Maye to step up through the air and, despite the two aforementioned picks, he did. He had his best passing numbers of the season, and he easily demonstrated his ability to just chuck the ball down the field when the play is there. It did serve as confirmation that Carolina remembers who their best player is. It’s also worth considering how stacked Minnesota is up front, with Goolden Gophers regularly causing problems both for Maye and for the other Tar Heels to try and get to those middle screen passes that Maye loves to use. He came through when it mattered, though, and the final drive to clinch the game was picture-perfect.
In the end, Carolina is 3-0 against three really good opponents that play vastly different styles. What more do you need?