By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — Carolina always knew that the offense would be prolific and that the Tar Heels have plenty of potential if they can somehow get it together on defense.
That beleaguered unit did that for one day against a struggling Virginia Tech offense, and the test from here will be how much they can build on that against a quality opponent. UNC’s defense easily produced its best performance of the season in a 41–10 victory Saturday in its ACC opener at Kenan Stadium.
“Defensively, we saw a game where we previously saw quarters,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “They put a whole game together. We tackled better. We played the deep ball better.”
Replacing the long list of defensive issues that kept cropping up in the first four games was a decent list of things to like about the defense’s play against the Hokies. Carolina (4–1, 1–0 ACC) kept Virginia Tech (2–3, 1–1) mostly in check with a more aggressive approach, applying more pressure.
“It was never really panic,” linebacker Noah Taylor said. “We always came with that swag and confidence to see all that stuff come together. That was really good to see, especially at a critical point in the season.”
Brown said that the biggest improvement was the number of plays when nobody made a mistake. In previous games, one or two players weren’t where they needed to be, which turned into a big play for the opponent. He said his players got into the right gaps all game.
“They’ve been given the effort but not everybody does their job,” Brown said of the first four games. “Today, I thought they did their jobs.”
A week after Notre Dame dominated Carolina’s defensive front, that line was stellar against the Hokies as they gave up only 273 total yards, the fewest since holding Georgia State to 271 last season. That was the lowest total by an ACC opponent since Syracuse had 202 in 2020.
Carolina hasn’t made many game-changing plays on defense, but its leader, linebacker Cedric Gray, came up with a huge first-half interception deep in Hokies territory to set up a score on the next play. Kevin Hester made a big stop to end Virginia Tech’s initial second-half drive when they needed a good start after halftime.
Gray, who came into the game leading the ACC and third in the country in tackles, finished with a team-leading eight tackles.
“We were very upset with the product we put on the field last week,” Gray said. “There was definitely some pent-up frustration. It was very important to see those results this week.”
Penalties, many on defense, hurt Carolina in the first four games (an average of 72.3 yards per game), but the Tar Heels only had four penalties for 25 yards Saturday.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Drake Maye and junior wide receiver Josh Downs impressively led the way for the offense again. Maye was 26 of 36 for 363 yards and three TDs and rushed a team-leading 73 yards for two touchdowns. Downs had eight receptions, including one for 33, for 120 yards.
After the game’s opening drive stalled for UNC, Virginia Tech drove 59 yards for William Ross’ 34-yard field goal.
Carolina converted on fourth down twice, including fourth-and-goal at the 3, to take a 7–0. Running back D.J. Jones picked up the blitzing Hokies linebacker Keli Lawson to make a huge block. That gave Maye enough time to connect on a scoring pass off of play action to Kamari Morales with 4:37 left in the first quarter.
“We scored 41 points but we really should have had more. We weren’t as successful running the ball as we wanted. There still remain some zero gains,” said Brown, whose team ran for 160 rushing yards.
Downs made a fantastic catch down the left sideline on Maye’s pass as he was hit to covert a fourth-and-seven for 24 yards. After another dazzling Downs catch for 14 yards, Maye ran in for the touchdown from a yard out.
“It feels like we’re clicking at the right time,” Downs said.
Gray’s fourth career interception and second of the season two minutes later set up a 16-yard touchdown pass from Maye to Antoine Green on the next play.
Virginia Tech then put together a 14-play, 69-yard drive, including a fourth-down conversion, to produce quarterback Grant Wells’ 2-yard touchdown run with 28 seconds left.
Carolina went 48 yards in four plays to produce a Noah Burnette 44-yard field goal as time expired to give UNC a 24–10 halftime lead.
Maye’s 2-yard touchdown run capped a season-long 94-yard scoring drive in 12 plays on the Tar Heels’ first possession after halftime. Four minutes later, Burnette added a 21-yard field goal. After another Tech three-and-out, it became a rout after Maye connected on a 25-yard touchdown pass to Bryson Nesbit.
NOTES: Maye tied his father Mark (who was a starter for two of his three seasons from 1984 to 1987) for combined touchdown passes and rushing touchdowns at 22. … Maye’s 19 touchdown passes are the most by a Tar Heel through five games (previous high was 14 by Bryn Renner in 2012 and Sam Howell in 2021). … UNC gained 527 total yards, the fourth time in five games it’s collected at least 500. … Carolina converted on all three fourth-down tries. … With kickoff specialist Jonathan Kim (touchbacks on 27 of 32 kickoffs) deciding to transfer, Burnette added that job to his place-kicking duties and produced a touchback on four of six kickoffs. … Virginia Tech, who lost to West Virginia one week earlier 33–10, scored 10 points or fewer in two consecutive games for the first time since 1989. … Brown thanked the fans for coming out despite the weather conditions. The attendance was announced as 45,029. … UNC is on the road for the next two games, visiting Miami at 4 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) and Duke on Oct. 15 before its second open date of the season. … The 1997 UNC football team, which went 11–1 and beat Virginia Tech 42–3 in the Gator Bowl, was honored during a second-quarter timeout. Saturday’s win was by the largest over the Hokies since that game. … Kenan Stadium press box seats were reserved for the CFL’s BC Lions, the Cleveland Browns, the Senior Bowl, the Cheez-It Bowl (2) and the Orange Bowl (2).
UNC 41, VT 10
|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||N.C. State||9–3, 6–2 ACC|
|3||Saturday||8 p.m.||Charlotte||No. 10 Clemson||ABC|
Photo of Cedric Gray via @UNCFootball