By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Drake Maye quickly threw away any concerns about Carolina’s quarterback situation after Sam Howell’s departure, and the Tar Heels’ young running backs looked impressive. Still, other worries from last season popped up against a short-handed FCS team Saturday.
While Maye looked poised and polished, his offensive line struggled at times but looked better. Although the defense made some big plays, it couldn’t contain the passing game much of the night of a Florida A&M team missing three starters and many top reserves.
The Tar Heels suffered through the same blown coverages, poor tackling and missed assignments that plagued their defense last season. The Rattlers drove down the field way too easily in dealing with UNC defensive coordinator Gene Chizik’s approach of giving up small gains and no big plays by exploiting the secondary.
Although it was a 56–24 win, Carolina came into the game as 45-point favorites but didn’t break away until late and came out of it with plenty of work to do between now and next Saturday’s game at Appalachian State. At the same time, there was a lot to like for the Kenan Stadium crowd announced as 46,130.
Maye admitted to first-game jitters.
“I just told myself I’ve been practicing for a year and a half now and all this work I’ve done can pay off,” Maye said. “Trust the process. It’s awesome.”
Noah Taylor, the Virginia transfer, came up with a big first-quarter sack to snuff a promising FAMU drive at midfield. Power Echols had a big first-half sack and forced a fumble. A Storm Duck interception set up a touchdown. But defensive highlights like that were the exception.
“We didn’t tackle well early, which is usually the case in the opening ball game because we had trouble tackling a lot in the preseason,” said UNC coach Mack Brown said, who would like to get more pressure on the quarterback despite three sacks.
Maye became the first Carolina player to throw five touchdown passes in an opener and the first to do it in his first career start. Maye finished 29 of 37 for 294 yards and a 189.7 passer rating and ran four times for 55 yards.
“I’m very proud of Drake,” Brown said. “That was one of the best first games I’ve ever seen. He was poised. He was accurate and his running ability was good. We did not have a sack.”
Maye was impressed with his running ability.
“The thing that surprised us the most is how fast he is,” Brown said.
While Maye got all the QB snaps until 6:45 remained, Carolina rotated running backs, with starter D.J. Jones, freshman Omarion Hampton, true freshman George Pettaway and sophomore Caleb Hood all playing in the first quarter and three going for more than 50 yards.
Hampton ran for 101 yards and two touchdowns, becoming the first Tar Heel to run for more than 100 in his first game since the legendary Charlie Justice in 1946. Sophomore Elijah Green ran 46 yards midway through the fourth quarter on his first carry for UNC’s longest play of the game and finished with 69.
After a quick first drive, Maye engineered a seven-play, 78-yard drive for his second career touchdown pass to give UNC the lead with 5:51 left in the opening quarter. He showed his running ability with a 42-yard run on a designed play when many QBs would have slid earlier. Instead, he juked past a defender and ran for more yards. Maye then connected on a 17-yard scoring pass with Kamari Morales on the next play.
“I thought the fact that the ball distributed to so many different people is another credit to Drake,” Brown said. “He went to the open guy.”
FAMU needed only 2½ minutes to tie it with a 17-yard pass from QB Jeremy Moussa to Pittsburgh transfer A.J. Davis to cap an eight-play, 75-yard drive.
Maye needed only 2:52 to get the lead back when a 23-yard TD pass to Bryson Nesbit ended a seven-play, 75-yard drive. Maye scrambled to his left on a fourth-and-goal on the next drive, which lasted 12-plays and went 83 yards, for a four-yard TD pass to Gavin Blackwell on a 12-play, 83-yard drive.
The Rattlers stayed within striking distance by converting two fourth-down plays on the way to Jaylen McCloud’s five-yard touchdown run with 2:01 left in the first half.
Duck’s third career interception, but first since the 2019 Military Bowl, set up a 2-yard TD pass from Maye to Josh Downs to give UNC a 28–14 halftime edge.
“It definitely felt good,” said Duck, who has battled injuries the last two seasons.
Carolina started to pull away by taking the second-half kickoff and driving 65 yards in seven plays for a one-yard Hampton touchdown, although FAMU added a field goal and a third-quarter touchdown.
Pettaway got past four Rattlers defenders on a 29-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter, showing the talent Tar Heels fans had heard so much about.
On the next play after Echols’ forced fumble, Maye connected with Downs on a 27-yard touchdown pass. Hampton added a 29-yard touchdown run.
NOTES: This was the seventh time in Brown’s second stint at UNC that the Tar Heels have collected more than 600 total yards. … Maye became the first UNC quarterback to throw at least four touchdown passes in a half since Nathan Elliott did it against Western Carolina in 2017. … Seven Tar Heels scored touchdowns. … UNC cornerback Tony Grimes left the game in the first quarter with an upper-body injury and didn’t return. … One of the ineligible FAMU players was Isaiah Land, an edge rusher who is an NFL prospect. This position on the depth chart is listed as “Fang.” … Although 25 FAMU players were ineligible for the game, 70 were stretching on the field before the game. … UNC goes on the road for noon ESPNU games the next two weeks against FCS schools out of the Sun Belt Conference: Appalachian State next Saturday and Georgia State in two weeks. …There were numerous NFL scouts with Kenan Stadium press box seats reserved for Saturday’s opener: Giants, Bucs, Texans, Panthers, Falcons, Bills, Browns, Cardinals and Chargers. … Carolina is 6–4 all-time in August games, the first one a 31–9 win over Southern Cal in 1993 and the previous one a 24–20 win over South Carolina in Charlotte in 2019, the first game of Brown’s second stint at UNC.
UNC 56, Fla. A&M 24
|27||Saturday||W, 56–24||Home||Florida A&M||1–0|
|3||Saturday||W, 63–61||Boone||Appalachian State||2–0|
|10||Saturday||W, 35–28||Atlanta||Georgia State||3–0|
|24||Saturday||L, 45–32||Home||Notre Dame||3–1|
|1||Saturday||W, 41–10||Home||Virginia Tech||4–1, 1–0 ACC|
|8||Saturday||4 p.m.||Miami |
|29||Saturday||TBA||Home||No. 24 Pittsburgh||TBA|
|12||Saturday||TBA||Winston-Salem||No. 22 Wake Forest||TBA|
1 or 3:30
|Home||No. 10 N.C. State||ABC or |
Photo via @UNCFootball