By R.L. Bynum
BOONE — In a small two-game sample size, Drake Maye has already shown the potential to become the best quarterback in North Carolina program history. And his defense still has work to do.
Maye led UNC to a thrilling 63–61 win Saturday over Appalachian State at Kidd Brewer Stadium, ending a skid of seven consecutive losses away from Chapel Hill, in an instant classic before 40,168 fans.
The Tar Heels had to stop two late two-point conversion attempts to preserve the victory.
“It’s probably better than a blowout because we had to fight and overcome some adversity,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “We kept fighting and didn’t lose like we did at Pitt and State. “
UNC survived when App State quarterback Chase Brice overthrew Dashaun Davis on a two-point conversion attempt after connecting with him on a 28-yard touchdown pass with 31 seconds left.
After Carolina’s Bryson Nesbit returned the ensuing kickoff 43 yards for a touchdown, Brice hit Kaedin Robinson on a 26-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds left. Again, the Mountaineers failed on the two-point conversion, this time on a Brice run.
“We were as unlucky as you could possibly be and still win the game,” Brown said. He told Nesbit after the game that he should have just hit the ground instead of returning the kick for a score.
Maye is arguably an upgrade from Sam Howell with his ability to get rid of the ball quickly, distribute it to more players and find receivers up the middle. He makes pinpoint passes with a flick of the wrist. And he made a clutch third-and-9 42-yard touchdown pass with 2:50 left.
“Drake Maye is a special young man,” said Brown, adding that his teammates are inspired by the quarterback’s play. “They’re so confident in Drake. He’s our guy.”
Maye ran the two-minute offense masterfully at the end of the first half and for a touchdown to start the second half to help UNC build a lead it needed to eventually hold off App State.
“That was crazy,” Maye said of the game that featured 62 fourth-quarter points. “It gives us a lot of confidence and especially winning a big one on the road.”
Without Josh Downs, his best receiver, Maye completed passes to eight receivers on his way to 352 yards and four touchdowns and ran for 85 yards. His main blemishes were an overthrow in the end zone and a fourth-quarter fumble.
Once the Tar Heels’ defense shook off a rough first half and started slowing the App State offense, they scored 34 consecutive points. But the Mountaineers rallied to tie it when the defensive struggles returned in the fourth quarter before making the two big stops on two-point conversion attempts.
“In a high-scoring game like that, it’s usually the first team to get the last stop who wins,” said linebacker Cedric Gray, who led UNC with 13 tackles. “I was just telling my guys that we have to make a play. It says a lot about how good we can be if we don’t make the same mistakes.”
The first half wouldn’t have been as bad for Carolina’s defense if not for one play on each of ASU’s scoring drives: the Mountaineers’ Daetrich Harrington bouncing off the turf for extra yards when he appeared to be tackled, Tony Grimes just missing an interception and an offside call extending a drive.
Both teams scored on their first drives. A Nate Noel run on a draw play on third-and-long went for a 52-yard TD run for App State 2½ minutes into the game. Wide receiver J.J. Jones made an outstanding catch for a 31-yard reception to ignite Carolina’s first drive, which ended with a 23-yard touchdown catch with 8:21 left in the first half.
Brice threw touchdown passes on App State’s next two possessions to give the Mountaineers a 20–7 lead. He hit Dalton Stroman for 44 yards and Henry Pearson on a 22-yard scoring strike on the first drive, and Christian Wells on a 2-yard scoring pass on the second.
Caleb Hood made a nice catch and spun past would-be tacklers on a third-and-long on a 22-yard play to extend the next drive for UNC. Maye connected on a 14-yard pass to his roommate Kobe Paysour, the sixth target to catch a pass on the drive, to make it 21–14 with 9:30 left in the first half.
“I was just a little anxious before we played but after the first possession when we got things rolling, I started to get comfortable and got a couple of balls,” said Paysour, who caught eight passes for 92 yards.
After holding App State to a missed field-goal attempt, Carolina went 66 yards on seven plays to tie it at 21, getting runs of 11 and 21 yards from true freshman George Pettaway, the second for the score. He showed his speed and shimmied past defenders for the score with 4:08 left in the first half.
Maye looked polished in the two-minute offense as UNC went 72 yards in 1:43, converting a fourth-and-long pass for 21 yards to Paysour and finding Bryson Nesbit in the end zone on a 10-yard scoring strike.
Maye followed that up by capping the opening second-half drive with a 12-yard touchdown pass to the corner pylon to give the Heels a 35–21 edge, greeting Howell after the play. After Kaimon Rucker and Jahvaree Ritzie sacked Brice on fourth down in the ensuing drive, UNC was well on its way to victory.
“That was pretty cool,” Maye said of seeing Howell after that score. “Sam’s the man.”
After Noah Burnette booted a 47-yard field goal to push UNC’s lead to 17, Carolina got the ball right back on Cedric Gray’s interception to set up a 44-yard Burnette field goal.
A pair of Nate Noel 1-yard touchdown runs in a stretch of 90 seconds, the second after Maye’s fumble, cut UNC’s lead to 41–35 with 10:37 left.
Just when it looked like the game might be slipping away, Caleb Hood broke through with a career-long 71-yard run to set up Omarion Hampton’s 2-yard scoring run. Maye ran in the two-point conversion.
App State pulled within seven after taking advantage of several UNC penalties on a drive that produced a 32-yard TD pass from Brice to Christan Horn with 7:20 left.
The Mountaineers tied it on Camerun Peoples’ 38-yard touchdown run with four minutes left.
Carolina retook the lead on a drive that included a 27-yard Maye run and a 42-yard touchdown pass to D.J. Jones. App State tied it on a 28-yard pass from Brice to Dashaun Davis with 2:19 left.
NOTES: Hood’s 71-yard play was the longest by a UNC player since Dazz Newsome had an 84-yard touchdown at Duke in 2018. … The point totals for both teams exceeded the over/under for the game of 56. … Downs, who had an ice pack around his left knee after the win over Florida A&M, missed the game with a lower-body injury. He’ll be reevaluated each week, and the injury isn’t considered serious. Three of the nine wide receivers in uniform for UNC were walk-ons. … The win ended a 15-game losing streak for Carolina when trailing by 14. …This was the third all-time meeting between UNC and App State but the first in Boone. UNC won 56–14 in 1950, and ASU won 34–31 in 2019. … Carolina plays another noon ESPNU road game against a Sun Belt Conference team next Saturday at Georgia State. … NFL scouts from the Ravens, Bears, Giants, Jaguars and Steelers were at the game.
UNC 63, App State 61
|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||No. 19 |
|1||Saturday||W, 41–10||Home||Virginia Tech||4–1, 1–0 ACC|
|8||Saturday||W, 27–24||Miami |
|Miami||5–1, 2–0 ACC|
|15||Saturday||W, 38–35||Durham||Duke||6–1, 3–0 ACC|
|29||Saturday||W, 42–24||Home||Pittsburgh||7–1, 4–0 ACC|
|5||Saturday||W, 31–28||Charlottesville||Virginia||8–1, 5–0 ACC|
|12||Saturday||W, 36–34||Winston-Salem||Wake Forest||9–1, 6–0 ACC|
|19||Saturday||L, 21–17||Home||Georgia Tech||9–2, 6–1 ACC|
|25||Friday||L, 30–27, |
|Home||No. 25 N.C. State||9–3, 6–2 ACC|
|3||Saturday||L, 39–10||Charlotte||No. 10 Clemson||9–4|
|28||Wednesday||L, 28–27||San Diego||No. 15 Oregon||9–5|
Photo via @UNCFootball