It feels like it’s a common refrain this season: “it wasn’t pretty but...”
In all four of Carolina’s games this season, the Tar Heels allowed the opposing team to hang in for a little while. Appalachian State had to go to two overtimes while the other three saw Carolina eventually exert their will and take over. It’s frustrating, especially for a fanbase that is used to feeling like Charlie Brown trying to kick that football. Unlike previous seasons, though, this squad seems to be able to take a team’s first punch and recover. It’s a weird feeling to see UNC take a punch and punch back in this way.
Do we dare get our hopes up for something bigger? We’ll have a couple weeks to think about it.
With that, let’s talk about the winners, losers, and honorable mentions for the 41-24 win over Pitt.
Alijiah Huzzie-Former THB writer Chad Floyd and I had an exchange on social media after Carolina’s win over the Gamecocks. One of the things he made a point in saying was “Huzzie is as advertised.” Huzzie has since followed that game by making multiple saving plays against Appalachian State in the second overtime, and was all over the place — in a good way — against Minnesota. The East Tennessee State transfer had his best game on Saturday, overshadowing perhaps the great effort from Drake Maye. His great night started with a great punt return, only to follow that up with this score — the first for a Tar Heel since Dazz Newsome against Syracuse in 2018.
For fans of The Simpsons, watching this return is Bart watching Ralph Wiggum in slow motion saying “You can actually pinpoint the second when his heart rips in half.” Yes I’m old.
It wasn’t just the punt return, though. It was also two massive interceptions that he hauled in the second half when Carolina’s offense turtled. The second pick actually ended the game, meaning Huzzie ripped out their heart and then did it again for good measure. Carolina actually has a member of the secondary teams have to actively avoid now, and that could be a turning point for this defense.
Drake Maye-Easily the best game for the redshirt sophomore. He had a clean sheet in terms of interceptions, slung a 19+ yard pass to five different players, executed a reverse flea flicker perfectly despite getting nailed in the face mask, ran in for two scores, and completed a pass left-handed for his passing touchdown.
Hey, credit Kobe Paysour on that for realizing his defender was committed to stopping Drake and staying open in his line of sight.
On a night when the Carolina running game again wouldn’t put up numbers and the defense allowed Pitt to score a little too easily at the start, Maye was asked to shoulder the load and once again showed he was up to the task. His Heisman candidacy may be more under-the-radar than it was at the start of the season, but he’s compiling signature moments and also showing he has intangibles that are making NFL scouts exited about taking him. The stars out west (Caleb Williams, Bo Nix, and Shedeur Sanders) have taken all the headlines, but Maye just keeps winning and appears to be getting stronger as the season rolls along.
Kaimon Rucker-After the second score from the Panthers, Pittsburgh found their offensive footing non-existent. Rucker was, once again, a big part of that with seven tackles, and both of his tackles for loss were sacks. Rucker was part of a defensive front that quickly realized the Pitt offensive line was weak and continued to put pressure on both Pitt quarterbacks. He and his teammates also quickly showed Pitt fans screaming for Phil Jurkovech’s benching that he isn’t the problem. Once Jurkovech was out for the game, Carolina was able to just stop playing offense because the defense knew Pitt couldn’t put up any points on them. It was frustrating to watch as a fan on one level because you want to see offense, but it also kept Drake Maye clean in the second half after he thad taken some nasty hits.
Special Teams-Aside from the obvious returns completed by Huzzie, the UNC special teams unit did not have a great night at all. They gave up a blocked punt and a kickoff return for a touchdown when it was clear the Tar Heels were trying to kick it shorter and force a return. If you’re going to do that then you may want to actually, you know, make a tackle. Carolina was able to make up for both of these mistakes — the kickoff return only brought Pitt back to within two scores while they turned it over the very next play on the blocked punt. Also, credit to Noah Burnette for two 40+ yard field goals in a stadium infamous for being difficult on kickers. Still, against better teams the special teams have to be cleaned up.
Running Backs-For the second straight week the Tar Heels faced a tough defensive front, and for the second straight week the running game basically disappeared. They did show up once when it was important: in the red zone when Hampton scored a tough first touchdown for the Tar Heels. But it was pretty weak on another goal line situation after the flea-flicker play. The Tar Heels were about a yard away but needed fourth and goal to cash in, and that was on a bit of misdirection from Maye. Maye had more rushing scores than the running backs, but at least he wasn’t the leading rusher, even when sack yardage is taken out. Here’s hoping that it’s just a two-week aberration and the run game can get back to what they showed the first two weeks, as it’ll make Maye and the Heels better.
ACC Network-The ESPN network is an easy punching bag for fans as it’s clear in a lot of areas it’s an afterthought to the SEC. The broadcast on Saturday seemed to have more issues than it should have with the remnants of Tropical Storm Ophelia coming through. The reason the replay of Maye’s touchdown looks so rough is because the ACCN couldn’t seemed to get their wires together enough to get a clear picture. A little later when Tayon Halloway was ejected for targeting, there was no good view of the actual play because of the static. It’s a shame that the prime time signature broadcast for the network had a picture so bad it would give its viewers seizures.
J.J. Jones took advantage of the attention placed on Nate McCollum and went off for six catches and 117 yards, including the longest play of the night, the 52-yard bomb by Maye perfectly placed. Carolina has receivers, Maye just needed time to adjust to the loss of Tez Walker. Now, though, Maye is starting to get comfortable with his weapons so the rest of the ACC needs to look out...Cedrick Gray actually led the team in QB hurries with three and had seven tackles as well. His partner Power Echols also had seven tackles, and those three — Gray, Echols, and Rucker — combined 4.5 tackles for loss and five hurries. It was good to see them wake up after Pitt’s second score...John Coopenhaver shed the club on his hand and hauled in the second biggest catch of the night, the 40 yarder on the flea flicker. It’s good to see him back.
Alright, Carolina fans. Time to rest up before the home stretch. After this weekend it’s non-stop football for the next eight weeks. Enjoy being 4-0 and here’s hoping they can keep it going.