Friedlander: Loss to Georgia Tech brings Drake Maye, UNC back to reality
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – If North Carolina was looking to impress the College Football Playoff committee and play its way into a top-10 ranking, this wasn’t the way to do it.
Nor was it a way for Drake Maye to create the kind of buzz necessary to elevate himself from Heisman hopeful to a legitimate contender for the award.
You can end the conversation about both right now.
Reality bit the Tar Heels hard Saturday.
Any thoughts they might have had of running the table and sneaking into the Playoff picture went up in smoke at the hands of Georgia Tech. The 21-17 loss at Kenan Stadium also effectively lit a match to Maye’s realistic chances of bringing home college football’s top individual prize.
The star freshman wasn’t terrible. He finished with 202 yards on 16-of-30 passing. But for the first time this season, he didn’t throw for a touchdown. And for the first time in 7 games decided by a touchdown or less, he wasn’t able to pull a rabbit out of his hat and save his team in the end.
“There were so many uncharacteristic things that happened tonight,” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “It was a really, really awful night offensively.”
And not just for Maye.
While the Yellow Jackets kept him under duress with a pass rush that recorded 6 sacks, they also all but nullified his favorite receiver by bracketing Josh Downs with double coverage for the entire game. It was a strategy, aided by the absence of deep threat Antoine Greene, that limited Downs to just 5 targets.
Even so, Downs had an opportunity to produce another memorable moment in a season full of them for UNC when he finally got free in the end zone on a 4th down play from the Tech 19 with just over 4 minutes remaining.
But instead of hauling in Maye’s pass for the go-ahead touchdown, the ball popped out of his hands for a turnover on downs.
Oh my God…. Josh Downs dropped a TD on 4th down! Georgia Tech has a 21-17 lead with 4 minutes left!! pic.twitter.com/uQKYWEwHA6
— 𝗙𝗢𝗟𝗟𝗢𝗪 @𝗙𝗧𝗕𝗲𝗮𝗿𝗱𝟳 (@FTBeard7) November 20, 2022
The Tar Heels never regained possession, the coup de grace on a night in which UNC was shut out in the 2nd half and fell well short of its ACC-leading averages of 40.1 points, 505.5 total yards and 341.6 passing yards per game.
As stunning as the result might have been, especially since both Brown and Maye said the team had a good week of practice leading up to the game, it’s not as if it came completely by surprise.
The Tar Heels have been living on the edge all season, playing down to the level of their opponent and doing just enough to come out on top.
This time, it finally caught up with them.
Maybe they started believing all those positive press clippings or in the infallibility of their quarterback as the Heisman hype finally began to swirl around him. Perhaps they got caught looking ahead to next week’s rivalry game against wounded UNC or their championship showdown with Clemson.
Or maybe it just came too easily, too soon against the Yellow Jackets.
UNC’s first snap from scrimmage went for an 80-yard touchdown run by Elijah Green. Its next offensive play was a 33-yard completion from Maye to Gavin Blackwell. After picking up 113 yards on the first two plays, the Heels managed only 252 on their next 61.
“You learn what we say every day. It’s not who’s got the best team, it’s who plays the best on Saturday,” Brown said. “You look at scores every week on Saturday and you see things happen like this. You just don’t want to be one of those and we obviously are.”
It was the 2nd straight year Georgia Tech tripped UNC up as a double-digit underdog.
“I thought we were mature enough to play in what would be called a trap game,” Brown said. “I thought we were beyond that after Virginia. Obviously we weren’t.”
True, the performance of the team during the game was immature. The response from its freshman quarterback afterward was anything but.
To his credit, Maye fell on the proverbial sword for his teammates by taking full responsibility for the loss.
“This offense starts with me,” he said. “It’s my job to move us down the field and score points. We didn’t do that. I’ve got to do my job. It just sucks.”
The loss definitely hurt from both an individual and team perspective. At the same time, it may have helped provide Maye and his teammates a needed dose of reality.
Given their schedule, their lack of pedigree — in football, at least — and the low regard with which the ACC is held nationally, it would have been an extreme long shot for the Tar Heels to have played their way into the final four. Maye’s realistic Heisman chances were only slightly better for the same reasons.
Regardless of his statistics.
Now that both those goals are off the table, the Tar Heels can concentrate on regrouping and chasing the championship they actually have a legitimate shot at winning.