Sam Howell owns most of the major passing records in North Carolina football history. But on Saturday, he was just another Tar Heel fan, who just happened to be on the sideline with the team during their 63-61 thriller over Appalachian State.
Howell, now a quarterback with the NFL’s Washington Commanders, stood in the back corner of the end zone as UNC redshirt freshman quarterback Drake Maye finished off a 12-yard touchdown run.
Maye acknowledged the three-year starter and record-setter he replaced, slapping five and tapping shoulders in celebration. The exchange could unofficially represent that the torch has been passed.
“I told him after I ran it in, I should’ve got on a knee and held the ball up to him because what he did here is pretty incredible,” Maye said.
Here are three things we learned from Carolina’s victory:
In Maye we trust
It’s just two games into his career, but Maye’s not only looking like a viable replacement for Howell, but like he could one day bump Howell from atop the many passing records he now holds.
Maye completed 24 of 36 passes for 352 yards and four touchdowns in his first road game. Combined with last week’s performance against Florida A&M, he’s now got nine touchdown passes and no interceptions through 73 attempts.
At the end of the first half, he ran a two-minute drill to perfection, guiding Carolina on a nine-play, 72-yard scoring drive capped off by a 10-yard touchdown strike to tight end Bryson Nesbit with one second left on the clock.
While App State had the record crowd of 40,168 in a frenzy after rallying from down 20, Maye stayed calm in directing another pair of scoring drives. And when Maye eyed down a blitz that was sure to take him out, he still delivered a pass to a wide open D.J. Jones out of the backfield, who ran 42 yards for the go-ahead score with 2:50 left. The Tar Heels never trailed again.
UNC coach Mack Brown said the offense has already rallied around Maye and has so much confidence in him because he’s “old beyond his years.” Brown compared Maye to former Texas quarterback Colt McCoy because he never gets rattled.
“Drake Maye is a special young guy,” Brown said. “Did he screw some things up? Yes. Did we have some noise penalties where we had motion? Yes. Did we fumble the ball and give them a chance to get back in the game with a freshman quarterback? Yes. But they scored 63 points and when they needed to answer, they did answer.”
The Heels were so confident, had App State gotten that two-point conversion with 31 seconds left, they believed it was more than enough time for Maye to lead them to a game-winning score.
“He’s just a gamer,” UNC receiver Kobe Paysour said. “He’s just a great player, great quarterback. So whatever he says, I feel like it’s correct.”
New defense, similar results
After a slow start in which App State scored touchdowns on each of its first three series, the Tar Heels allowed a total of 65 yards in the second quarter and just 56 in the third.
Those totals are pretty remarkable considering they gave up 338 total yards in the fourth quarter alone. (By comparison, they allowed FAMU just 335 yards of total offense in an entire game last week.)
Six of the the Mountaineers’ “explosive plays” of 20 or more yards occurred in the fourth quarter too.
“I feel like the defense as a whole, we got a little bit complacent and we started feeding into the crowd noise and stuff like that and not focusing on the task at hand,” defensive back Deandre Boykins said.
It’s a small sample size, sure, but through two games it’s hard to identify one area that Carolina’s defense has clearly improved over last season. Add in a few untimely penalties and it’s the exact same plays that frustrated Brown last season and led to former defensive coordinator Jay Bateman’s departure.
“It’s what we did last year, we had too many penalties on defense and too many explosive plays,” Brown said. “And that’s what you got to quit doing.”
The Mountaineers opened up their passing game more. Unlike last week against Florida A&M where it was mainly quick-hit strikes, App State quarterback Chase Brice had time to throw deep. Brice threw for 218 yards in the fourth quarter.
“We made those adjustments and they were working and then they kind of came back and made their own adjustments,” linebacker Cedric Gray said. “It was a long game as well. That probably took a toll on us, but it’s four quarters to football so we got to play. We’ve just got to go back and fix all the mistakes that we made defensively.”
Maturing wide receivers
Carolina lost three receivers from last season to the transfer portal. The Tar Heels have also been without Antoine Green since the middle of August camp. They knew before the game they’d be without Josh Downs too after he injured his left knee against Florida A&M last week.
The offense showed no signs that it would have trouble in the passing game.
Redshirt freshman Kobe Paysour, who had just one reception last season, led the team with eight catches for 92 yards and a touchdown. Paysour provided Maye with a bit of a safety outlet as half of his catches came on third downs to keep drives alive.
“Me and Drake, we’ve been throwing together since we was like in high school, so our connection has been there before college,” said Paysour, who is from Kings Mountain.
J.J. Jones had four receptions all of last season, but he started in place of Downs on Saturday and delivered big plays on Carolina’s opening drive of the game. Jones caught a 31-yarder and a 23-yard touchdown. He now has seven catches through two games this season and finished with 69 yards at App State.
Gavin Blackwell, who caught four passes and a touchdown against FAMU, had a 36-yard reception on the opening drive of the second half to set up a Carolina touchdown. It was one of six passes Maye completed for more than 20 yards in the game.
“To not bring our probably best offensive player,” said Brown of Downs. “In fact, period, our best offensive player — our two best receivers — on the road and still score 63 points, you got to feel good about where we’re headed.”
This story was originally published September 4, 2022 6:54 AM.
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