CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The No. 21 North Carolina football team (1-0, 0-0 ACC) defeated South Carolina (0-1, 0-0 SEC) 31-17 at Bank of America Stadium to begin its 2023 season.
The Tar Heels wasted no time marching down the field after the Gamecocks went three and out on the first drive of the game.
UNC sixth-year running back British Brooks returned to the gridiron after missing last season with a knee injury, totaling 28 yards of offense in UNC's first four snaps. An 18-yard pass from quarterback Drake Maye to tight end John Copenhaver put the Tar Heels in the red zone, and sophomore running back Omarion Hampton ran in the ball for the first score of the game.
Brooks' last game before Saturday's matchup was also played against South Carolina in the 2021 Duke's Mayo Bowl. He gave the Gamecocks trouble in the rematch, finishing with 103 rushing yards and three receptions for 18 yards.
Brooks shared an emotional moment with Mack Brown after the game, crying in his coach's arms.
"Today had just been a really emotional game for me," Brooks said. "[South Carolina] was my last game, and then just building up to it — I just couldn't hold it back no more."
South Carolina evened the score, 7-7, on the following drive after quarterback Spencer Rattler aired out the ball to wide receiver Xavier Legette on consecutive plays of 37 yards and 16 yards, respectively. Running back Dakereon Joyner ran in the equalizer.
The Tar Heels ventured into South Carolina territory later in the second quarter, but a series of penalties kept UNC out of the end zone and the team settled for a 37-yard field goal off the foot of graduate transfer kicker Ryan Coe.
South Carolina took its first lead of the game, 14-10, with just over five minutes remaining in the first half. Rattler completed passes of 29, 20 and 22 yards en route to a successful touchdown drive that took just one minute and 42 seconds.
UNC matched that pace with a 75-yard touchdown drive in five plays, topped off by a 34-yard touchdown pass to sophomore receiver Kobe Paysour that put the score at 17-14 in favor of UNC before the end of the first half.
Maye, a Heisman Award hopeful, had already amassed over 200 yards of offense – 177 through the air and 25 on the ground – by halftime.
The Gamecocks recovered their own second-half kickoff around the 50-yard line, but the sneaky maneuver didn't pay off after they proceeded to turn the ball over on downs and give the Tar Heels solid field position. A 37-yard pass from Maye up to sophomore receiver Gavin Blackwell set up Hampton for a one-yard touchdown run, giving UNC a 24-14 lead.
On the next UNC drive, Copenhaver hauled in a desperation fling from Maye, who was under pressure and looking to avoid a sack. The 18-yard touchdown and extra point gave the Tar Heels a commanding 31-14 lead.
South Carolina chipped away with a 26-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter, and then an overthrown pass to Paysour turned into Maye's second interception of the night. South Carolina's Kajuan Banks picked off the throw and returned it to UNC's 38-yard line, but a series of penalties and a sack from UNC's Kaimon Rucker helped force another turnover on downs.
"I thought [Maye] played great. He'll be so hard on himself because all he'll think about is the two interceptions," Brown said. "He won't think about all the other things he did, but I thought for three quarters he handled the game as good as anybody could ever handle it."
Maye finished the night with 294 total yards of offense and two passing touchdowns.
The Gamecocks failed to come away with any points on its next drive, which ended the same way as the last — a turnover on downs within UNC's 25-yard line. That failed drive was the nail in the coffin for South Carolina.
The North Carolina defense stood out with nine sacks, which is a stark contrast from the 17 sacks that the unit had all of last season.
"I think we sent a big message that we can play defense tonight," senior linebacker Cedric Gray said. Gray led the team with nine tackles and added a crucial third-down sack early in the second quarter.
The win was Brown's 100th at UNC. Brown's first game at UNC was a 31-10 loss to South Carolina in 1988. His first game back at UNC after a stint at Texas and a brief television career was a 24-20 win over the Gamecocks in 2019.
Brown is the first head coach in Football Bowl Subdivision history with 100 wins at two different schools.
UNC will play Appalachian State next Saturday at 5:15 p.m. in Chapel Hill.