By R.L. Bynum
CHAPEL HILL — No matter how many mistakes Carolina’s defense makes, redshirt freshman quarterback Drake Maye always seems to find a way. It sure helps to have two dynamic wide receivers in senior Antoine Green and junior Josh Downs.
Once again, the No. 21 Tar Heels’ defense made enough big second-half plays to keep the momentum going with four wins in a row in what is developing into a season that might be special. Or, as UNC coach Mack Brown said after the game, “special players make for special seasons.”
UNC (7–1, 4–0 ACC) rallied from a 10-point third-quarter deficit with 28 consecutive points to take full control of the Coastal Division race with a 42–24 homecoming victory Saturday night over Pittsburgh (4–4, 1–3).
“Really, really proud of the guys,” Brown said. “I think that’s the toughest game that we’ve had, the most physical game since we’ve been here 3½ years.”
Brown said that winning a physical game shows his team is maturing.
“I’m really proud of the culture,” Brown said. “It’s probably an overused word, but proud of the mentality that this team has.”
Green, who caught 10 passes for 180 yards, both career highs, and two touchdowns, said he definitely felt like he was “in the zone.” Add his production to Downs’ usual impressive game (a career-high-tying 11 receptions for 102 yards and two touchdowns), and it was another big day for Maye.
“The coaches did a good job of getting the ball to Green and Downs at the start of the second half,” said Brown, who was proud of UNC scoring on all five red-zone possessions before running out the clock at the end. “We didn’t get it to Josh enough in the first half. When somebody’s going to blitz, you leave it one-on-one, and those are two of the best receivers in the country.”
Maye finished 34 of 44 for 388 yards and five touchdowns. His 29 TD passes on the season are the fourth-most by a freshman quarterback in ACC history and is the most through eight games in league history. He’s the first player in program history with five consecutive games of at least 300 passing yards.
“They are phenomenal playmakers,” Maye said of Downs and Green. Maye also led the Tar Heels in rushing with 72 yards and heard “Drake Maye for Heisman” chants in the fourth quarter. His 34 completions broke Sam Howell’s school record of 33 by a freshman.
NCAA leaders in TDs responsible for
Drake Maye, North Carolina — 32
C.J. Stroud, Ohio State — 29
Austin Reed, Western Kentucky — 27
DeQuan Finn, Toledo — 27
“He has tremendous confidence,” Brown said of Maye. “He is an outstanding leader, and he’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever seen. And he never changes his voice inflection. He never changes the way he looks with his body language.”
Downs’ second scoring catch of the game, a 25-yard play after UNC jumped on a Pitt fumble, put UNC up by 10 points with 10:46 left.
The derisive, decades-old assessment of UNC’s secondary as creating “the friendly skies of Carolina” applied in the first half and for one second-half drive before the defense started making some plays.
For one half, the defense suddenly made yet another quarterback and another receiver look like All-Americans.
A week after Pittsburgh quarterback Kedon Slovis threw for only 158 yards in a loss at Louisville, he nearly equaled that in the first half (157) on his way to 236 yards. Wide receiver Jared Wayne is the latest in a line of opposing receivers to have a big night, going from 21 reception yards against the Cardinals to a career-high 161 against UNC, repeatedly beating UNC on the same deep pass route.
None of that happened after the initial Pitt drive of the second half, though.
Pittsburgh needed only 3:25 to go 77 yards and take the lead on running back Israel Abanikanda’s six-yard touchdown run.
UNC tied it with 4:07 left in the first quarter on Green’s one-handed, over-the-shoulder catch in the right side of the end zone. He fended off cornerback A.J. Woods with his left hand on a 16-yard scoring pass from Maye, who led UNC 59 yards in 10 plays.
Pitt went ahead by 10 points on a four-yard Abanikanda scoring run early in the second quarter and Ben Sauls’ 47-yard field goal with 5:14 left.
Two plays after Maye hit Green for 18 yards and 50 yards, he connected with roommate Coby Paysour on a tunnel screen for a 1-yard scoring play with 3:33 left to trim Pitt’s halftime lead to 17–14.
After a 50-yard Wayne reception, Abanikanda’s 22-yard TD run stretched the Panthers’ lead to 10.
Maye found Downs in the left side of the end zone for a 13-yard touchdown pass for his 17th career scoring reception to pull within three points with 6:05 left in the third quarter.
Kaimon Rucker and RaRa Dillworth sacked Slovis for a 10-yard loss on third down to get a huge defensive stop.
UNC’s offense responded with a 10-play, 84-yard drive that produced a 2-yard Elijah Green touchdown run to give the Heels their first lead of the game at 28–24 in the first minute of the fourth quarter. It was his third touchdown in three games.
Cedric Gray, who led UNC with four tackles and five assists, pounced on Abanikanda’s fumble on the fifth play of Pittsburgh’s ensuing drive, and Downs’ second scoring reception came three plays later.
“I think it was really the difference in the game,” Brown said of the fumble recovery.
Antoine Green’s second score, a 13-yard reception, shoved the lead to 18 with 9:07 remaining.
Again, the defense came through with Storm Duck making two big plays to stall a Pittsburgh drive.
NOTES — Carolina can clinch the division title at Virginia at noon Saturday (ACC Network) by winning if Duke (at Boston College), Georgia Tech (at Virginia Tech) and Miami (vs. Florida State) lose. … It was Brown’s first win over Pitt after losing a pair of overtime games at Pittsburgh in 2019 and 2021. … it was the first time UNC has ralied from a third-quarter deficit to win since beating Wake Forest 48–34 on Nov. 6 of last season. .. It’s UNC’s best start since winning the first eight games in 2015. … Carolina is 11–5 against the Panthers, including 7–0 at Kenan Stadium … UNC is 131–66–4 overall and 75–23–2 as a ranked team. … UNC running back Caleb Hood (upper body) and defender Noah Taylor (right knee) each suffered game-ending injuries in the first quarter. … Pittsburgh safety P.J. O’Brien was ejected for a blindside block on a second-quarter punt return, and defensive tackle Calijah Kancey was ejected late in the second quarter for a helmet-to-helmet hit on a sliding Maye. Maye joked that he “took one for the team” after it left him with a bloody pinkie. … UNC honored its football teams from 1970 to 1972, including former head coach John Bunting and running back Don McCauley, after the first quarter. … Press box seats were reserved for the Panthers, 49ers, Vikings, Raiders (2), Colts, Cardinals, the Military Bowl (2), the Orange Bowl (2), the Cheez-It Bowl (2) and the Hula Bowl. … The attendance was announced as 50,500.
No. 21 UNC 42, Pitt 24
Last Thursday’s result
N.C. State 22, Virginia Tech 21
Last Saturday’s results
North Carolina 42, Pittsburgh 24
Miami 14, Virginia 12
Florida State 41, Georgia Tech 16
Louisville 48, Wake Forest 21
Notre Dame 41, Syracuse 24
UConn 13, Boston College 3
Duke at Boston College, 7 p.m., ESPN2
North Carolina at Virginia, noon, ACC Network
Georgia Tech at Virginia Tech, 12:30, ACC Network Extra (ESPN3)
Syracuse at Pittsburgh, 3:30, ACC Network
Clemson at Notre Dame, 7:30, NBC
James Madison at Louisville, 7:30, ESPNU
Florida State at Miami, 7:30, ABC
Wake Forest at N.C. State, 8 p.m., ACC Network
|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 Antoine Green via @UNCFootball