Downs snags momentum for UNC, as Heels hold on for fifth win in row

By R.L. Bynum

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — Needing to take control of a sluggish offensive effort, Drake Maye put the ball in the hands of his best receiver.

Junior wide receiver Josh Downs came up with three huge catches on a pivotal third-quarter drive to give No. 17 North Carolina the lead. 

That gave the Tar Heels (8–1, 5–0 ACC) the momentum, and they held on for a 31–28 victory over Virginia (3–6, 1–5) at Scott Stadium on Saturday for their fifth consecutive victory and a step closer to the last Coastal Division title.

As Coach Mack Brown pointed out, nobody on his team was alive the last time UNC won five consecutive road games in 1997. “I’m so proud that we played really well at times today,” Brown said.

Downs, who returned a fourth-quarter punt 37 yards, caught a career-high 15 passes for 166 yards and a touchdown as he was the target for 16 of Maye’s 37 passes. Downs all but sealed the win with a four-yard reception on a third-and-two on UNC’s last drive.

“What a great day for him,” Brown said of Downs. “He just keeps getting better and better.”

He said Downs is one of the best receiver he’s ever coached.

“He really is because he doesn’t drop a ball,” Brown said. “He can get open, they can’t cover him man-to-man, he easily takes two. The coaches have done an amazing job this year moving him around. It got last year in the last part of the season where he was bracketed every time. He still caught a bunch of balls, but it wasn’t as effective. And now they can’t find him.

“The little tunnel screen for a first down on third-and-ten was key and huge,” Brown said. “He’s elusive, he’s hard to tackle, he’s tough and he can catch. And he catches the ball anywhere. He plays or practices like that every day. It’s hard to do that. It’s hard to do what Drake’s done anyway; but it’s hard to do what Drake’s done as a freshman. It is hard to play at this high of level for nine straight games. Freshmen don’t do that.”

Maye finished 26 of 37 for 293 yards and two touchdowns while running for 74 yards and one touchdown.

“He’s a phenomenal player and has a knack for getting open,” Maye said of Downs. “I want to get him the rock because he’s one of our playmakers.”

UNC trailed by three when Maye connected with Downs three times for 45 yards, all impressive plays, on the key scoring drive. Downs made a nice catch in the left corner of the end zone on the third reception for a 19-yard touchdown run.

“It was a corner route,” Downs said. “The play wasn’t designed for me, but it was cover one, so when we recognized that, I pretty much knew that it was gonna be to me after that. I knew I just had to get open and Drake put the ball in a good place and I scored.”

UNC got the needed insurance when Maye’s 22-yard touchdown pass to Elijah Green shoved the Heels’ edge to 31–28 with 13:19 left.

“Drake has so much composure, and he competes, and Josh is the same way,” Brown said. “Those guys are as competitive as anybody.”

Downs assured Brown that UNC would get the job done.

“Coach Brown, he just comes up to me and he’ll be like, ‘you’ve got to make these plays,’ ” downs said. “So, then I went up to him and I just reciprocated the energy, and I said, ‘Coach, don’t worry, I got you right here’. I told that same thing to Coach [Phil] Longo too, I’m just like ‘I got you when you need it.’ Just getting trust between the head coach and player, and the offensive coordinator and player, and just trying to keep doing that.”

Downs deflected when asked how he was so successful.

“Honestly, it’s just because we got other guys that make plays, too. Any given Saturday, any guy can make plays,” Downs said. “Last week, [Antoine Green] had 180 [yards]. Whoever’s day it is, the defense can say I’m gonna take away 11 or I’m gonna take away three. Or the tight ends, we’ve got dudes that can make plays there. They gotta play us straight up and it’s hard to play straight up when we’ve got two of the best in the nation.”

Elijah Green had a solid day in his first career start, running for 91 yards and a touchdown and catching a 22-yard pass for a touchdown.

With defensive end Des Evans and linebacker Noah Taylor suffering season-ending injuries, the challenges for the up-and-down Carolina defense got greater.

Even without three offensive starters, Virginia seized the opportunity in the first half. Quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who threw for 554 yards last season against the Tar Heels, threw for 103 yards and ran for 48 in the first half.

The Cavaliers could only gain 14 first downs in last week’s 14–12 loss to Miami but bettered that with 16 in the first half. As seems to happen every week, the UNC defense played better in the second half as Virginia only had nine first downs after halftime.

“It was definitely adjustments coming into halftime,” Storm Duck said, explaining the pattern of the defense playing better after halftime. He said the coaches are making different calls in second halves.

Brennan made it interesting by leading a 71-yard drive in 59 seconds and scoring on an 8-yard touchdown run with 3:24 to cut UNC’s lead to three. But after UNC recovered an onside kick, the Tar Heels ran out the clock.

“Really disappointed in the offense at the end that we didn’t finish the game at the end,” Brown said. “We had the ball with a 10-point lead; you have to finish the game.”

The ringleader on defense, as always, was linebacker Cedric Gray, who finished with a career-high 16 tackles (10 solo, and two for a loss) loss) and one sack, as well as breaking up a pass. Defensive back Giovanni Biggers added eight tackles (four solo).

“He is our best player on defense,” Brown said of Gray. “He’s a true leader. He’s very, very positive and upbeat. And he’s got a quiet demeanor but he picks them up, and he empowers them because we’re seeing the linebacker position make a lot of plays.”

After not scoring an offensive touchdown against the Hurricanes, Virginia easily drove 65 yards in nine plays for a four-yard scoring run by Armstong. It was the Cavaliers’ first touchdown on an opening drive this season.

UNC’s first drive stalled after going 58 yards, and it settled for a 35-yard Noah Burnette field goal.

Maye gave the Tar Heels the lead after rolling to his right, looking for a receiver, and finding nobody open. He reversed field and ran into the left side of the end zone untouched on a five-yard touchdown run (with a lot more yards than that actually run), his fourth TD run of the season. That ended a 13-play, 80-yard drive.

The Cavaliers quickly retook the lead about 4½ minutes later, going 75 yards in 13 plays to produce a three-yard Xavier Brown touchdown run, his first career score, giving them a 14–10 halftime lead. The Cavaliers converted on a pair of third-and-eight plays on the drive.

The teams traded 75-yard touchdown drives to start the second half.

Elijah Green scored on a 4-yard run thanks to two nice blocks from the middle of the line. Armstrong connected with Sackett Wood Jr. on a 34-yard pass play on a wheel route to set up a 1-yard Ronnie Walker Jr. touchdown run.

NOTES — Maye, who has two or more touchdown passes in every game this season, joined Sam Howell (2019 and 2020) and Mitch Trubisky (2016) as the only UNC quarterbacks to throw at least 30 touchdown passes in a season. … May admitted that on the sort of run where he ran out of bounds near the goal line Saturday that he probably would have jumped in an attempt to score earlier this season. He said it was a smart decision not to jump and that he felt as good as he has felt after a game this season. … It was Downs’ ninth career game of at least 100 reception yards. … Brown said Omarion Hampton was available, but his fumbles against Duke led to him not playing. … Virginia was without starting wide receivers Dontayvion Wicks, Keytaon Thompson and Lavel Davis and running back Perris Jones. … Duck’s first-quarter interception after Gray tipped the pass was UNC’s sixth interception of the season. … Elijah Green has scored four touchdowns in the last five games. … UNC moved to 27–26 all-time at Charlottesville after Virginia won in 2018 (22–19) and 2020 (44–41). … Carolina is 3–1 this season when trailing at halftime. … UNC is 8–1 for the first time since 2015. … Brown is 5–9 against Virginia.

No. 17 UNC 31, Virginia 28

ACC standings

X-No. 13 North Carolina6091
Georgia Tech3446
Virginia 1637
Virginia Tech1628
X-No. 9 Clemson7091
No. 20 Florida State5373
N.C. State3373
Wake Forest2464
Boston College2537

X-Clinched division title
Saturday’s results
North Carolina 36, Wake Forest 34
Duke 24, Virginia Tech 7
Pittsburgh 37, Virginia 7
Miami 35, Georgia Tech 14
Clemson 31, Louisville 16
Boston College 21, N.C. State 20
Florida State 38, Syracuse 3
Saturday’s games
Louisiana at Florida State, noon, ESPN3
Virginia Tech at Liberty, noon, ESPN+
Duke at Pittsburgh, noon, ACC Network
Boston College at Notre Dame, 2:30, NBC
Miami at Clemson, 3:30, ESPN
N.C. State at Louisville, 3:30, ACC Network
Coastal Carolina at Virginia, 3:30, ESPN3
Georgia Tech at North Carolina, 5:30, ESPN2
Syracuse at Wake Forest, 8 p.m., ACC Network

(current rank)
27SaturdayW, 56–24HomeFlorida A&M1–0
3SaturdayW, 63–61BooneAppalachian State2–0
10SaturdayW, 35–28AtlantaGeorgia State 3–0
24SaturdayL, 45–32HomeNo. 19
Notre Dame
1SaturdayW, 41–10HomeVirginia Tech 4–1, 1–0 ACC
8SaturdayW, 27–24Miami
Gardens, Fla.
Miami 5–1, 2–0 ACC
15SaturdayW, 38–35DurhamDuke6–1, 3–0 ACC
29SaturdayW, 42–24HomePittsburgh7–1, 4–0 ACC
5SaturdayW, 31–28CharlottesvilleVirginia8–1, 5–0 ACC
12SaturdayW, 36–34Winston-SalemWake Forest 9–1, 6–0 ACC
19SaturdayL, 21–17HomeGeorgia Tech 9–2, 6–1 ACC
25FridayL, 30–27,
2 OTs
HomeNo. 25 N.C. State 9–3, 6–2 ACC
DecemberACC championship
3SaturdayL, 39–10CharlotteNo. 10 Clemson9–4
Holiday Bowl
28WednesdayL, 28–27San DiegoNo. 15 Oregon9–5

Photo via @UNCFootball


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