Tez Walker’s big night propels No. 12 UNC to 41-31 win over No. 25 Miami

UNC receiver Tez Walker scores his first of three touchdown receptions in the Tar Heels’ 41-31 win Saturday over Miami in Chapel Hill. (Gene Galin / North State Journal)

CHAPEL HILL — Behind a career night from junior receiver Tez Walker, No. 12 UNC overpowered No. 25 Miami, 41-31, in a top-25 ACC showdown.

In just his second game this season, Walker caught a career-high three touchdown passes and recorded his first 100-yard receiving game with the Tar Heels, finishing with 132 yards. He caught six passes, averaging 22 yards per reception.

“It just felt nice to be back in a groove,” Walker said. He missed the first four games of the season due to ineligibility according to the NCAA’s transfer rules.

Walker’s production proved important for UNC’s offense as sophomore receiver Kobe Paysour was ruled out indefinitely with a lower-body injury before the game.

“Really, really proud of (Walker),” UNC coach Mack Brown said. “Now that people have seen him, it’s going to change the way people play defense against us. His presence is a game changer.”

After a slow opening offensive drive, during which sophomore quarterback Drake Maye was 0-for-4 passing, the Tar Heels struck first with an eight-play, 91-yard drive that ended with an 18-yard touchdown pass to Walker.

UNC wouldn’t score again until the end of the second quarter, though, as Miami turned up its pressure on Maye, and the Tar Heels backed themselves up with numerous penalties. The Hurricanes sacked Maye four times in the first half.

The Tar Heels totaled 14 penalties for 147 yards in the game.

“You can’t have that many penalties,” Brown said. “We’ve got to clean that up as coaches and players, and we still gave up too many explosives, and we had too many negative running plays. There’s a lot of things that we can do better.”

The Tar Heels’ defense also suffered a flashback to last season in the first two quarters, allowing 273 yards — the most UNC has given up in an opening half this season.

But UNC, down 17-14 at the start of the third quarter, got back in the groove in the second half.

Brown said the halftime adjustments included more quick-game looks and more targets to Walker on offense. Defensively, the focus was limiting Miami’s ability to break long runs through the middle.

On the Tar Heels’ opening possession of the second half, Maye found Walker deep down the middle for a 56-yard touchdown to put them up 21-17.

The defense also got going, picking up two consecutive turnovers — a Myles Murphy fumble recovery and a Cedric Gray interception.

Gray returned his interception to the Miami 23, setting up the hat trick for Walker. Four plays after the turnover, Maye connected with Walker for a 33-yard score, putting UNC up 28-17 in the third quarter.

Following that score, Miami tried to find some life, cutting the lead to 10 points with just over two minutes left in the game after Tyler Van Dyke threw a 54-yard touchdown to Brashard Smith.

On the ensuing onside kick attempt by Miami, the man of the night, Walker, came away with the big recovery.

“I rank that the best play of the night,” Walker said. “Special teams, that’s what changes games. … I feel like that’s one of the biggest plays in my career, honestly.”

Although Walker’s numbers were the most impressive, he wasn’t the only one who provided some much-needed production against the Hurricanes.

Maye completed 17 of 33 passes for 273 yards and four touchdowns. Omarion Hampton ran for 197 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries.

UNC is now 6-0 for the first time since 1997 with five wins over Power Five opponents.

The Tar Heels will be back in Chapel Hill next Saturday against Virginia at 6:30 p.m.