UNC, Maye nearly overcame plenty of challenges to upset Oregon

By R.L. Bynum

All the elements were there for a long night in San Diego for North Carolina, but the Tar Heels ignored it all to give No. 15 Oregon a challenge that few saw coming.

Wide receivers coach Lonnie Galloway called plays for the first time all season, but he couldn’t call one for Josh Downs because the junior opted out of the Holiday Bowl as he prepares to enter the NFL draft. The Tar Heels’ other top receiver, Antoine Green, was also unavailable because of a lower-body injury.

“They gave everything they had,” UNC coach Mack Brown said of his team. “We had a GA coaching offensive line. We had a guy calling plays that’s never called plays before. We had guys that weren’t even here. We’re starting two freshmen in the secondary.”

As Carolina discovered many times this season, if you have Drake Maye at quarterback, you’ve got a chance. He gave UNC quite a good shot before the Ducks pulled out a 28–27 victory on the San Diego Padres’ home field with questionable field conditions that could have cost the Tar Heels a first-half touchdown.

One of the best defensive games of the season slowed Oregon’s potent offense and had UNC in control of the game for all but the last minute of the second half.

“Here’s Drake without an offensive coordinator, and I thought Lonnie Galloway did an outstanding job,” Brown said of the work Galloway and tight ends coach John Lilly did putting the offense together.

Although Maye had his second-lowest passing yardage total of the season with 206, he made plenty of throws that show that he should be one of the Heisman Trophy favorites next season, with three touchdown passes and no interceptions.

“I think the main thing is we were all out there relaxed, having fun,” Maye said. “Nobody is uptight. 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.”

He made completions in tight windows and showed the sort of poise Tar Heels fans have come to expect from him.

“I think sometimes at points of the game [it was] Coach Galloway, Coach Lilly calling plays and left it up to the players to make plays,” Maye said. “That’s what you have to do. Let us pick the plays and, at the end of the day, that’s a big part of it. Players make the plays.”

Even without his top two targets most of the season, Maye found a way.

“Like Coach said, certain things were against us,” Maye said. “We had a new guy calling plays. We had freshmen receivers out there. We gave it all we got, and it wasn’t well enough for us to win tonight.”

Maye’s first of likely only two seasons as UNC’s starting quarterback turned many heads nationally as he matured quickly beyond his years and worked through late-season hiccups.


Because he was the star with the biggest spotlight on him, he faced the media and answered the tough questions after the difficult losses like a veteran rather than like the 20-year-old he is.

He has the entire offseason to review what he can improve after his four lowest passer ratings this season came during the season-ending four-game losing streak. The 129.2 against Oregon was the highest of the four, but his completion percentage was a season-low 51.4% (the previous lowest was 53.1% against Notre Dame).

Carolina was undefeated this season (9–0) when Maye completed at least 63% of his passes and winless (0–5) when he didn’t.

“I think the main thing I learned is to trust the process and all the hard work that goes in,” Maye said. “It shows and turns out life lessons outside the relationships for the rest of my life with guys I love and playing with them out on the field; there’s nothing I would trade in the world for that.”

Brown’s second coaching stint at Carolina continues to produce thrilling finishes, including a Power Five-high 27 games decided by one possession. Other than the losses to Notre Dame and Clemson and the victories over Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech, that applied to every game during UNC’s 9–5 season.

“That means that’s a team fighting their guts out to try to win,” Brown said. “We won seven of those that came down to the last play of the game. We lost a few. Oregon is the best team that we played, and that came down to the last play of the game, and we lost it with a chance to win.”

There will undoubtedly be more thrills next season, although Tar Heels fans would be fine with fewer heart-thumping finishes. But, with Maye along for the ride, it should be interesting.

Photo via goheels.com

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