Saturday night was a chance for the Tar Heels to pick up their biggest win in years and officially put to rest any questions about the direction of the program after last season. Following a back-and-forth battle in the first half with the South Carolina Gamecocks, a program that you could argue was feeling the best they’ve felt since Steve Spurrier was on campus, the Tar Heels pulled away with an outstanding third quarter to pick up that signature victory. Here are my biggest takeaways from the team’s amazing 31-17 win in Charlotte over the Gamecocks.
Defensive Front Breaks Out
I spent this entire offseason begging this Tar Heel defensive front to start showing us some of the reasons they were rated so highly as recruits and, boy, did they do that on Saturday night. A group that was a big part of why the team finished 126th in tackles for loss and 120th and in sacks a year ago put together a legendary performance last night, totaling 9.0 sacks and 16.0 tackles for loss. The Tar Heels already have over half of the sacks they did a year ago in 14 games and are nearly a third of the way to their tackle-for-loss number, as well. Leading the charge on Saturday was Kaimon Rucker, who finished the night with eight total tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks in what was the most dominant performance we’ve seen from a Tar Heel defensive lineman in a long, long time. He was joined by a pair of fellow edge rushers, Amari Gainer (2 ttkl, 2.0 TFL, 2.0 scks) and Beau Atkinson (2 ttkl, 1.5 TFL, 1.5 scks), who were simply outstanding in their first game action as Tar Heels. The room as a whole deserves a lot of credit for being physical at the point of attack the entire night, something they haven’t done often in the past two years. While the players do deserve a ton of praise, you can’t talk about this performance without crediting the coaching staff. Tim Cross has received a lot of criticism, and rightfully so, for the struggles of the unit the last few years, but he had his guys ready to go for this one. The addition of Ted Monachino as a senior defensive analyst has also clearly made an impact and Mack Brown deserves a ton of credit for bringing him in this offseason to give some new ideas. Duplicating this type of performance will be incredibly tough to do considering just how historic it was, but this is a sign of hope that I needed that this unit is going to take a big step forward from last year.
The Defense Didn’t Fold in Those Moments that Could Have Swung Momentum
One of the biggest issues that this Tar Heel defense had a year ago was adjusting to adversity. In each of the final four games of the season, the team had moments where they were faced with sudden changes and they simply weren’t good enough to handle those and make the plays they needed to. Last night, though, that was far from the case when this defense was faced with many of those scenarios that could have turned the game. First came the onside kick out of halftime, which gave South Carolina the chance to immediately grab the lead early in the third quarter. The Tar Heel defense would force a turnover on downs, springboarding the offense for their two touchdowns in that extended their lead to 17. The offense gave the Gamecocks multiple chances to get back into the game, throwing interceptions on back-to-back drives and then going three-and-out consecutively in the possessions following those two scores, but the defense did not break. They allowed just three points on the four drives that followed those drives as they showed confidence in themselves that last year’s unit simply lacked. Because of how scarred I am as a fan when it comes to this Tar Heel defense, it’s hard to not be scared about the possibility that this was a one-off, but what I saw last night just felt a little different.
Drake Maye Was Really Good, Not Great
The way Mack Brown felt about his team in the postgame is the way I feel about this performance from Drake Maye. He had a really strong start to the game, throwing for 266 yards and two touchdowns in his first 28 pass attempts, numbers that would have been even better if you didn’t have the two drops from Gavin Blackwell that could have produced big plays. He did have one big miss down the field in the first half, though, after Kobe Paysour did a great job of beating his defender over the top. Down the stretch, Maye was forcing things a little bit, starting with the first interception of the night. He did a good job of getting out to his left and had plenty of time to throw, but there simply wasn’t anybody open. Instead of just throwing the ball away, Maye tried forcing something to Blackwell that wasn’t there and it gave the Gamecocks such much-needed hope at the time. The second interception wasn’t on him, but rather on Paysour, who had the ball go through his hands straight to the defensive back. Maye nearly had another interception, though, when he had a pass deflected on another rollout, one that probably wasn’t worth forcing either. Despite those mistakes late in the game, this was a really solid start to the year for Maye and there is no one else in the country that Tar Heel fans should want leading this team.
Kobe Paysour and the Tight Ends Step Up with Two Transfer Receivers Out
When the news came out pregame that Nate McCollum would not play due to an injury, there was some legitimate concern about the wide receiver room for this game. While some of those concerns were validated by a quiet night from J.J. Jones and a frustrating one from Gavin Blackwell, four guys who will be very important for this team early in the season made their impacts felt throughout the night. Paysour once again led the Tar Heels in receiving (7 rec, 66 yds, TD), the fourth consecutive time he has done that when he has been a starter in the slot, proving that he needs to be a feature part of this Tar Heel passing game no matter who is active for them moving forward. The tight ends also stepped as many thought they would heading in. John Copenhaver, who impressed the staff enough this offseason to become the team’s top option in the room, had a nice game, catching three passes for 52 yards and a remarkable one-handed touchdown grab while fighting through a defender. Kamari Morales had a couple of big catches early in the first half to set the tone and Bryson Nesbit also pitched in with some solid production as well to help move the football down the field through the air. Don’t get it wrong, the Tar Heels would love to have McCollum and Tez Walker back as soon as possible, but this passing game proved they have the talent to still produce at a high level if they are without those two moving forward.
British Brooks Proved Why He is Back Atop the RB Depth Chart
The Tar Heels running back room is a loaded one to say the least. So much so that last year’s leading rusher, Elijah Green, did not carry the ball once on Saturday night. Instead, that backfield was in the hands of promising sophomore Omarion Hampton and graduate senior British Brooks. While Hampton ran hard the entire evening and found the endzone twice, this night was about Brooks's return to the field for the first time in nearly two years after he was injured last preseason. For just the second time in his career, he reached the 100-yard mark, totaling 103 on 15 carries and after the game, he was visibly emotional on the field. This was an amazing chapter in the remarkable story of Brooks’s career, which some thought was over with the injury, and this may only be the start of many to be written this season.
Biggest Win of Mack Brown’s Second Stint Shows Why You Should Support This Program
While there were a lot of good things to take away from this game, the showing from the fanbase was not one of them. The College Gameday showing was embarrassing to say the least, as it sounded like the event was taking place in Columbia, not Charlotte. Inside the stadium, South Carolina fans definitely out-numbered Tar Heel fans, probably two-to-one, and were loud in the pregame as opposed to the Tar Heel fans who were rather quiet prior to kickoff. Last night was another example of why Mack Brown and this program deserve your support. The team is coming off a season where they won nine games for just the second time since Brown’s first stint on the Tar Heel sidelines ended and now they have the biggest win of his second stint. It’s time to show up and support a team that has a chance to have a special season while being led by their Heisman-hopeful quarterback.
Mack Brown Proves Again He is One of the Best of His Generation
With the Tar Heels win on Saturday night, head coach Mack Brown became the first coach in NCAA history to win 100 games at two different FBS schools. There is no denying that there have been some frustrations with him in the past two years, but this win last night continues to prove why he is the best coach to ever grace the Tar Heel sideline and one of the best of his coaching generation.