In every pressure-packed moment this season, North Carolina always seemed to find a way out.
Locked into a fourth-quarter shootout against Appalachian State? Or maybe trailing on the road against Duke with just over two minutes to play? Even a single-point deficit against Wake Forest in a primetime matchup?
For the Tar Heels, Drake Maye was always there to be the team's most coveted lifeline.
But in North Carolina’s 21-17 defeat to Georgia Tech on Saturday night — a game that saw the standout quarterback fail to find the end zone — the redshirt first-year showed his youth for the first time, finishing with just 202 passing yards and an interception.
“This offense starts with me,” Maye said. “It’s my job to move us down the field and score points, and we didn't do that tonight. It’s any (given) game in college football and I’ve got to do my job. It just sucks.”
Despite the unit ultimately stalling for most of the night — including being held scoreless in the second half — the offense started out the night on a positive note. After the Tar Heels forced the Yellow Jackets to punt on the game’s first drive, sophomore running back Elijah Green found a running lane and took UNC's first play 80 yards for a score.
According to head coach Mack Brown, the early score led to worrisome thoughts about the team's comfort level.
“I always get afraid that when you score on the first play of the game,” he said. “Everybody relaxes and thinks, ‘We got this’ and I hate (that mindset).”
Over the next four drives, North Carolina struggled to score at the level the team has displayed all season. A pair of possessions inside the red zone resulted in only three points after a negative pass play forced UNC to settle for a field goal, and later, Maye was stuffed on a fourth-down run.
Even after Green’s second rushing touchdown of the night gave North Carolina a 17-0 advantage late in the second quarter, the sizable lead seemingly led to a sense of complacency.
“I think during the game (Brown) felt like we coasted at times,” junior linebacker Cedric Gray said. “We kind of took them not seriously and kind of got a little overconfident.”
Out of the break, any signs of confidence were lost.
Maye slowly lost the passing accuracy that set him apart all season — misfiring on a check down read to Green and sailing a crossing route pass behind graduate tight end Kamari Morales. With each wayward throw came a response from the Yellow Jackets, who eventually took the lead early in the fourth quarter.
“I think we screwed the whole thing up,” Brown said. “There are so many uncharacteristic things that happened tonight. It was a really, really awful night offensively.”
Despite all the shortcoming, North Carolina had one final chance to sneak away with the win.
On fourth down inside the Georgia Tech 20-yard line, Maye dropped back for one final pass. Scanning the field, he found his go-to target in the front corner of the end zone.
There, Maye’s lofting pass nestled into the pocket of junior wide receiver Josh Downs, who didn’t have a Yellow Jacket in sight. Just as Kenan Stadium prepared to erupt, the leather ball slipped through his hands and the first-team All-ACC receiver collapsed to the turf in disappointment.
“The plays (Downs) has made throughout the year, what a player,” Maye said. “All the things he’s done for Carolina — one play is not going to define him.”
Rather than dish out any fault regarding the upset defeat, Maye repeatedly noted that his poor play was the deciding factor against Georgia Tech.
For a player that was receiving Heisman Trophy buzz throughout this past week, Maye's inability to lead the Tar Heels to victory one more time likely comes as a surprise to many — even to Maye himself.
“If you had told me before the game that (our defense) held them to 21 and we didn’t win, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Maye said. “Seventeen points is unacceptable and I’m the signal caller. We’ll watch and learn from it, but ultimately I’ve got to play better.”
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