CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Here’s a hypothesis, one that, if true, has the potential to raise North Carolina’s ceiling this season beyond what was previously thought possible:
What if, maybe, Drake Maye doesn’t need to be superhuman anymore?
Sit on that for a second. Because in the Tar Heels’ 31-17 season-opening win over South Carolina on Saturday — inside a Bank of America Stadium that has brought UNC fans plenty of pain in the last decade — that theory wasn’t some far-off fantasy; it was reality. Maye was still solid, finishing 24 of 32 passing for 269 yards and two touchdowns, plus four rushes for 25 yards, but he also threw two second-half interceptions, giving the Gamecocks brief belief that a comeback was possible. If that had happened last season, two late momentum-swinging turnovers? Well, UNC fans would’ve been the ones heading for the exits midway through the fourth quarter, instead of the garnet-clad faithful.
Instead, not only did North Carolina survive Maye’s mundane second half, but it stomped on South Carolina’s neck in spite of it.
“I’d like to start,” head coach Mack Brown said in his postgame news conference, “by congratulating our defense.”
That’s a new one, eh? Ever since Brown returned to Chapel Hill five years ago for his second stint as head coach, you can say two things consistently about the Tar Heels: They have almost always had excellent quarterback play, and they have almost always had the antithesis of that on defense. That combination is how, during the three seasons that current Washington Commanders quarterback Sam Howell played in Chapel Hill, UNC went just 21-17 overall, with two double-digit bowl losses. And last season, Maye’s first as the starter, followed the same script. UNC raced out to a 9-1 start, with Maye proving himself as a legitimate Heisman Trophy candidate and looming NFL prospect. (The Athletic’s Dane Brugler ranked Maye as the No. 3 draft-eligible prospect in all of college football this season in his latest Big Board.) As Maye’s star rose, so too did North Carolina’s ranking … until the inevitable crash.
Four consecutive losses to end the season, each in its own excruciating fashion. The usual disappointment. And right at the root of it all, a defense that allowed the 16th-most yards per game in the FBS.
“I mean,” linebacker Cedric Gray said, “(the offense) definitely bailed us out a few times last year.”
Even with that sordid late-season slump, Maye was so spectacular — posting over 5,000 total yards of offense, winning ACC Player of the Year, setting gobs of school and league records — that an objective observer would still deem UNC’s season as “good.”
Now, what if you gave that dude some help?
Posed that question postgame Saturday, only in a kinder way, Maye smirked, “Sky’s the limit.”
He might be on to something. There had been talk this fall about a renewed UNC defense, but also, come on. North Carolina’s search for competency on that side of the ball is seemingly decades long, each new generation of alumni with its own horror stories. (This author’s? Watching East Carolina drop a 70-burger back in 2014.) Doubt was deserved, if not expected.
Saturday did wonders to quiet those questions. Gene Chizik’s defense, from South Carolina’s very first drive, was as aggressive and attacking as advertised, forcing the Gamecocks into a three-and-out that vset the tone for the game. South Carolina’s first third-down attempt, when quarterback Spencer Rattler was almost sacked and sent scrambling, was especially prescient. By the second half, some iteration of that sequence — unabated pressure on Rattler, a furious escape attempt (with some more successful than others) — was playing out almost every down. What was two UNC sacks at halftime became five after the third quarter and ultimately nine for the game. That’s the second-most the Tar Heels have had in a single game since sacks became a registered stat in 2000. It’s easily the most the team has had in a game in 20 years.
Compare that to a defense that only had 17 sacks in 14 games last season.
“Oh boy, it’s satisfying. That’s the best way I can say it,” said Kaimon Rucker, who had two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss from the defense’s Jack position. “Seeing the look on their faces, the face of defeat, there’s nothing I can say about that. My boys are succeeding, and that’s all I want to see.”
In total, UNC held South Carolina to 11 total rushing yards, only four of 14 third-down conversions and, importantly, zero fourth-down conversions on four attempts. That last point was especially prudent; after Maye’s two second-half interceptions, the Gamecocks had chances to get back into the game — but the Tar Heels’ defense firmly shut them down. “We sent a big message that we can play defense,” Gray said. “Held them to 17 points, only three in the second half. I mean, I think that speaks for itself.”
It certainly does. Now, it is still worth pointing out the obvious here, of why North Carolina won: because it had the best player on the field, Maye, and because his B-minus is most quarterbacks’ best. In spite of the two interceptions (one of which bounced off Kobe Paysour’s hands and into a defensive back’s), UNC’s 6-foot-4 passing maestro still did all of the following:
- Completed his first 10 passes, with both of his projected starting receivers out. (Tez Walker remains ineligible due to the NCAA’s idiocy, and Nate McCollum was ruled out before the game with a lower body injury.)
- Scrambled for a 16-yard gain on a first-quarter second-and-15, stiff arming at least two defenders in the process.
- Completed a 3rd-and-4 to tight end Bryson Nesbit, somehow, after this ludicrous scramble.
- Ripped a 6-yard pass from the left hashmark to the right sideline, on a dime, while getting drilled in the chest.
- Threw a perfect parabola of a deep pass to Kobe Paysour for a 34-yard touchdown.
- And threw whatever you want to call this backyard-esque touchdown to tight end John Copenhaver, when Maye was, in Brown’s words, “on his back.”
“Drake was Drake,” Brown said. “He’ll be so hard on himself because all he’ll think about is the two interceptions; he won’t think about all the other things he did. But I thought for three quarters, he handled the game as good as anybody.”
This is Maye’s team, not just because he’s the quarterback but because he’s the lottery ticket: The rare, true, reliable college quarterback, one destined to play in NFL stadiums just like the one he starred in Saturday. It’s only a matter of time until he’s there, his destination a matter of which teams tank the hardest — looking at you, Arizona and Tampa Bay — to acquire his services.
But for all the wondrous feats Maye is capable of, he cannot do it alone. The Tar Heels saw how that went last season. He, like any boat-pulling player, needs reinforcements.
To be carried, at times, rather than always being the carrier.
“It’s pretty awesome when you see the D-line and the linebackers pressuring somebody else besides me in practice. It felt good,” Maye joked. “They couldn’t hit me in practice, but they had a good chance to get some hits tonight.”
They sure did. And yes, Saturday was only one night. But for one of the few times since Brown has been back at UNC, there was real hope that kind of support can become an every-game entity. And if it does?
Well, perhaps Maye and North Carolina have more in store for the ACC, for the nation, than originally seemed possible. Brown said it best, and in a relative shocker for him, succinctly:
“We can be good.”
(Photo: Grant Halverson / Getty Images)