Maye, defense make huge plays but Heels can’t get one last big defensive stop

By R.L. Bynum

Drake Maye was back to his top-level self at the Holiday Bowl, and Carolina’s defense made game-changing plays. But they couldn’t come up with one last defense stop.

An unlikely interception late in the first half, one of several big defensive plays, seized the momentum for North Carolina and gave the Tar Heels the lead until the final minute.

But Oregon quarterback Bo Nix hit Chase Cota on a six-yard touchdown pass with 19 seconds left. Camden Lewis’ PAT deflected off the left upright and went through to give the No. 15 Ducks a 28–27 victory Wednesday in San Diego.

Maye’s Hail Mary pass attempt fell incomplete in the end zone as time expired.

“We thought if we could get it to the 35, we had a chance, and that’s why Drake tried to get it to the 35 on the out,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “And then when there was one second left, we knew we had to sling it in the end zone. That was our only chance. We put in our tallest guys, most athletic guys out there, and Drake got it up there with still a chance.”

It was another heartbreaking loss for UNC, which lost its last four games of the season.

“I said if we had stopped the fourth-down play, I would be happier for them than it we won, happier for our fans, our administration that we won,” Brown said. “I wouldn’t feel any different about them. They gave every everything they had.”

Needing to drain the clock, Maye helped Carolina (9–5) kill nearly 4½ minutes on an 11-play drive before Noah Burnette nailed a 44-yard field goal with 4:22 left.

But a pass interference penalty against UNC defensive back DeAndre Boykins gave Oregon a first down at the Carolina 14 to set up the game-winning score.

“Most of them are coming back, and that’s what I’m looking forward to,” Brown said after a 10th win eluded his team for a fourth consecutive game. “For the second time in school history, we won the Coastal, and I don’t care about anything else. There’s one Coastal trophy, and it’s in our trophy case, and these guys will be remembered for that for the rest of their life.”

Although UNC ended the season with a bowl loss for the second consecutive season, this one felt different.

“Last year I walked out of Charlotte not very proud of me as a coach and not very proud of the time that I put out there,” Brown said. “I could not be prouder tonight. I said if it had been one point our way, I wouldn’t be any prouder of the way they played. They played really hard.”

The maligned defense complemented Maye’s excellence, sacking Nix for only the fifth time this season, forcing a huge three-and-out to start the second half and stopping the Ducks on a fourth-and-seven at the UNC 18 late in the third quarter.

Linebacker Cedric Gray came up with a huge tackle later in the third quarter deep in Oregon territory, with the Ducks facing a third-and-one. Even after an illegal jersey penalty gave them a first down anyway, they punted again three downs later.

Gray and cornerback Marcus Allen led the defense with six tackles and two assists each. Gray finished the season with 145 total tackles, the most since Dexter Reid had 166 in 2002. Allen’s eight total tackles matched his season total entering the game.

Maye took care of the rest to keep UNC in control until the end, throwing for 206 yards and tying the program record with three touchdown passes in a bowl game (five others have done it) while running for 45 yards to finish his redshirt freshman season impressively.

“In the first half after you go up 7–0, the most fun I’ve had the entire season out there tonight,” Maye said. “With these guys, the energy on the sideline, all the smiles going in the locker room. I’ll remember that for the rest of my life, these guys. They poured their heart out tonight.”

It was Maye’s seventh game this season with three or more touchdown passes, as he finished with a UNC single-season record of 4,321 yards to become the sixth player in ACC History to throw for at least 4,300 yards. Maye is the fifth quarterback in ACC history with more than 5,000 total yards in a season (5,019).

Kobe Paysour was his big target, catching seven passes for a career-high 98 yards and a touchdown. That was his best game since catching eight passes against Appalachian State.

“I think the main thing is we were all out there relaxed having fun. Nobody is uptight,” Maye said. “Made a bunch of plays. Played our butts off. It was a little bit of a scramble drill sometimes getting in personnel and late in the [play] clock, but that’s the thing. You know, that’s what made it fun tonight.”

The game shifted when Oregon (10–3) had the ball at the UNC 16 late in the first half and looked like it was about to score.

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Gray deflected a pass attempt with his foot. After it bounced off Power Echols’ left foot, Echols snagged it for his first interception of the season and returned it 40 yards to deny Oregon in the red zone.

Maye hit Paysour in stride on the next play for a 49-yard touchdown pass to give UNC a 21–13 halftime lead with 26 seconds remaining.

The game couldn’t have started much more poorly, as UNC went three-and-out on the first drive before Oregon drove 54 yards in six plays for a two-yard Bucky Irving touchdown run.

UNC converted on a third down and a fourth down to score after George Pettaway’s 56-yard kickoff return. The Tar Heels needed 12 plays, scoring on Maye’s six-yard pass to Andre Green Jr. After a pump-fake, Maye made a terrific throw to the left side of the end zone for Green’s first career touchdown.

After UNC’s J.J. Jones lost his footing on the bad turf at the Oregon 1 on a potential touchdown reception, Burnette’s 34-yard field goal attempt went wide right. Four plays later, Irving ran 66 yards for a touchdown to give Oregon a 14–7 edge.

Carolina tied it by converting twice on third down during a 10-play, 75-yard scoring drive. Maye finished it by threading a seven-yard touchdown pass to tight end Bryson Nesbitt against triple coverage with 4:34 left.

Burnette atoned for his earlier miss with a 19-yard field goal with 9:13 left in the fourth quarter.

Nix responded with a 6-yard touchdown pass to Troy Franklin with 6:58 left to trim UNC’s lead to 24–21.

NOTES — Carolina wide receiver Antoine Green (lower body injury) didn’t play. … Brown fell to 0–3 against Oregon after his Texas team lost to the Ducks in the 2013 Alamo Bowl and the 2000 Holiday Bowl. … In Brown’s second stint at UNC, the Heels have played 27 games decided by one possession, the most of any Power 5 program. … UNC, which went 1–4 this season against ranked opponents, is 0–4 in bowl games against Pac-12 teams. … Carolina dropped to 15–22 in bowl games with their third consecutive bowl-game loss.

No. 15 Oregon 28, UNC 27

DateMonth/dayTime/scoreLocationOpponent
(current rank)
TV/
record
August
27SaturdayW, 56–24HomeFlorida A&M1–0
September
3SaturdayW, 63–61BooneAppalachian State2–0
10SaturdayW, 35–28AtlantaGeorgia State 3–0
24SaturdayL, 45–32HomeNo. 19
Notre Dame
3–1
October
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
November
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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