Tar Heels defense lifts Drake Maye to season-opening win over South Carolina

UNC receiver Kobe Paysour crosses the goal-line on a 34-yard go-ahead touchdown reception in the third quarter against South Carolina on Saturday at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte. (Gene Galin / For the North State Journal)

The UNC defense gave quarterback Drake Maye a helping hand as the Tar Heels opened the season with a 31-17 win over South Carolina in Charlotte on Saturday night.

Maye completed his first 10 passes of the game and finished 24-for-32 for 269 yards. His 34-yard touchdown pass to Kobe Paysour and his 18-yard scoring strike to John Copenhaver helped UNC build a 17-point lead in the third quarter.

The sophomore Heisman candidate also had 25 yards rushing, moving past Mitch Trubisky into eighth place on the school’s career total offense list and tying Trubisky for sixth on the Tar Heels’ career touchdown passes list.

Maye was not able to add any yardage to his stat line in the final 21½ minutes of the game, however, as he suddenly looked very human.

With 2½ minutes remaining in the third, Maye had a pass intercepted by the Gamecocks’ Fortune O’Donnell at the South Carolina 25. On UNC’s next possession, Maye extended his interception streak to two straight passes, giving the Gamecocks the ball in Tar Heels territory.

In the fourth quarter, South Carolina had three drives reach the UNC red zone and one drive reach first-and-goal. The Gamecocks ran four plays inside the UNC 10-yard line and managed a total of negative two yards. On eight red zone plays in the final 15 minutes, the Gamecocks lost a total of 21 yards.

The UNC defense stopped South Carolina on downs on the Gamecocks’ final three drives of the game and battered USC quarterback Spencer Rattler. The Heels sacked Rattler nine times, which was more than half of the team’s sack total for all of last season (17). North Carolina also had 16 tackles for loss on the night.

“We’re really, really proud of these guys,” said coach Mack Brown, who won his 100th game as UNC head coach. “We got in trouble some there with the two turnovers in the fourth quarter, and we didn’t even blink. We just kept fighting and kept coming back. I told them that people can fold like we did in the App State game last year, and they didn’t do that.”

The performance was a striking turnaround for a unit that was among the ACC’s worst in yardage and points allowed last season and was considered the scapegoat for a late-season collapse following a 9-1 start to the season.

“We took it as a challenge to get more sacks, more TFLs,” said Kaimon Rucker, who had two sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. “We just took ownership.”

The team is in the second year under defensive coordinator Gene Chizik and seems more comfortable in the system.

“Confidence,” Rucker said when asked about the biggest difference on defense. “Now I feel like that’s a part of this part of my game that I’ve been lacking for a very long time. And, you know, this is probably the first year I feel truly confident in my abilities. It’s understanding where I’m supposed to be, understanding the plan that coaches have for me, and then just executing the plays that we’re given.“

The Tar Heels will bring the win back to Chapel Hill and prepare for the home opener against Appalachian State, who had a wild second-half comeback in last season’s game. Carolina held on to escape with a 63-61 win.

It’s safe to say the UNC defense will be looking to prove something in the rematch with the Mountaineers.