North Carolina football: Another Downs show helps Tar Heels survive Wake Forest
Josh Downs did it again.
Eleven catches, 154 yards, 3 touchdowns. Even by Downs’ lofty standards, and his perch as the premier wideout in the ACC and among the best in the country, those are outrageous numbers.
Without Downs, there simply is no chance 15th-ranked North Carolina could have won its 6th straight and clinched the ACC Coastal Division title Saturday. In another tight contest (a theme of this season for the Tar Heels), Downs, Drake Maye and the rest of the crew escaped Winston-Salem, N.C., with a 36-34 win against Wake Forest.
This is not new from Downs. Last season — as a sophomore, mind you — he reeled in 101 catches (5th nationally) for 1,335 yards (10th nationally) and 8 scores. After just 7 catches as a freshman, sitting in the shadows behind Dyami Brown and Dazz Newsome, Downs was among the best wideouts in America.
But that was in the midst of an extremely disappointing 6-7 campaign, one that saw North Carolina go from preseason College Football Playoff darkhorse to losing in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl to South Carolina. Now, the Tar Heels are winning again, and Downs is a big reason why.
“We’ve come such a long way from last year, from being overrated, I can say that, and not performing — to this year,” Downs said Saturday after the victory.
As North Carolina, which had possession at the Demon Deacons 48 (thanks to a massive interception, and subsequent return, by Cam’Ron Kelly), trailed 34-33 with just more than 4 minutes remaining, Maye and the offense simply needed a couple 1st downs to get into field-goal range for Noah Burnette.
But Downs got loose on an in-breaking route, with Maye hitting him in stride just inside the 30. From there, Downs put a move on defensive back Isaiah Wingfield and maneuvered his way to the Wake Forest 5. How’s that for a clutch play?
Burnette knocked home the winning field goal a couple minutes later, and after a 4th-down stop, the Tar Heels had punched their ticket to Charlotte.
That catch and run was just the capper of an incredible performance from Downs. The Georgia native started the scoring with a leaping touchdown grab during the opening quarter, and throughout the night, the ball seemed to be on a string when it traveled from Maye to his star receiver.
On his 2nd score, Downs cooked defensive back Evan Slocum on a shallow crosser, waltzing into the end zone to put North Carolina ahead 21-7.
His 3rd score, on an impressive grab in traffic, put the Tar Heels in front 27-21. Nearly every time Maye needed a key play, he looked in Downs’ direction. And his guy delivered, time after time.
When coach Mack Brown returned to the program during December 2018, recruiting was taken up a notch. The past three cycles (the 1st full recruiting seasons of Brown’s 2nd tenure with North Carolina) have featured the nos. 14, 14 and 11 classes, respectively, according to 247Sports.
Without that recruiting prowess, Downs, a 4-star, top-100 prospect, likely would not be a Tar Heel. In many respects, as this 2nd Brown era also has been defined by explosive North Carolina offenses, Downs is the poster child of the program’s return to national relevance.
So, sure, Maye should be getting tons of Heisman love. After all, he’s tied for 1st in passing touchdowns (34) with Ohio State’s CJ Stroud, 3rd in passing yards (3,412) and 6th in completion percentage (70.1). Plus, his team is 9-1 and will feature on Championship Saturday against 12th-ranked Clemson.
But Maye is able to put up gaudy numbers in part thanks to Downs, whose speed, route-running and catch radius all are top shelf. If he had not missed 2 games early this season, the junior would be a front-runner for the Biletnikoff, an award given annually to the most outstanding receiver in college football. Even in just 8 games, he is making a compelling finalist case.
Overall, the Tar Heels are not a finished product. Despite the win Saturday, they racked up 8 penalties for 78 yards and averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. Even Burnette missed an extra-point attempt — his 1st of the season — which left North Carolina trailing by a point late.
“This team could get so much better,” Brown said. “I got mad at the offense today because we should have scored 3 other touchdowns probably and I looked up and they’ve gotten nearly 600 yards of offense and scored 36 points and I’m still mad. But we can get better.”
But one thing the Tar Heels can count on is the play of their standout receiver. When healthy, Downs has been all over the field, making secondaries pay and helping his quarterback command what is among the top offensive corps in the country.
North Carolina is not just the Drake Maye show. Throughout the season, Downs has proven to be a more than worthy co-star.
He proved it again Saturday.