UNC QB Drake Maye’s confidence is soaring as the 17th-ranked Tar Heels visit struggling Pitt
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Drake Maye’s Heisman Trophy campaign is still more longshot than likely.
The North Carolina sophomore quarterback, however, is showing signs of going on the kind of run that ends with an invitation to the Downtown Athletic Club on the second Saturday in December, shaking off a pair of early interceptions last week against Minnesota to throw for 414 yards and two scores as the Tar Heels (3-0) won 31-13.
Another eye-popping performance on Saturday when UNC opens ACC play at struggling Pittsburgh (1-2) could have Maye enter the thick of the race with serious momentum.
“Drake was hot and I’ve never seen him better. It’s like it was with Colt McCoy,” said UNC coach Mack Brown, who coached the former Texas great from 2006-09, a career in which McCoy was a two-time Heisman finalist. “If Colt McCoy ever threw an incompletion, we all said what’s wrong with him. That’s the way it is with Drake right now.”
Faux exasperation of a mere incompletion is the kind of first-world problem the Panthers would love to have.
Pitt’s quarterback issues aren’t first-world, but real-world. The good vibes surrounding redshirt senior Phil Jurkovec’s homecoming season have quickly disappeared. The 23-year-old looked shaky at best and defeated at worst in back-to-back losses to Cincinnati and West Virginia.
Still, Panthers head coach Pat Narduzzi remains committed to Jurkovec, making it a point to spread the blame around rather than place it squarely on the shoulders of his quarterback.
“It’s receiver blocking, it’s O-line blocking, it’s tight end blocking, it’s catching the ball,” Narduzzi said. “Like you have to catch the ball. We have opportunities where we can catch the ball, and we don’t catch the ball. There’s opportunities to complete the pass and throw a better pass, and we don’t complete passes. It’s everything.”
UNC is eyeing its first 4-0 start since 1997, Brown’s final season of his first stint with the Tar Heels. The Panthers are trying to avoid falling to 1-3 for the first time since 2017. Pitt struggled at quarterback that season too before finally handing the job to then-freshman Kenny Pickett.
There are no plans to turn to sophomore Christian Veilleux. At least not yet. UNC, however, may be Jurkovec’s last best chance to prove he’s capable of leading the Panthers into contention in the crowded ACC.
UNC’s defense has shown signs of growth after last year’s troubles under then-first-year defensive coordinator Gene Chizik.
The Tar Heels opened 2023 by collecting nine sacks against South Carolina. They’ve managed just one over the last two games but came up with two takeaways and allowed a 3-for-12 conversion rate on third down against Minnesota.
“I think just the overall difference is a comfort level with the defense in your second year, I think that’s No. 1,” coordinator Gene Chizik said. “No. 2, we have very smart guys and I think they totally understanding where they’re fitting, what their job responsibilities are. … Our guys, it’s the carryover and accumulation of reps.”
Pitt — the collegiate home of Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin and LeSean McCoy — has long considered itself “RBU.”
Now, not so much. The Panthers have rotated Rodney Hammond, C’Bo Flemister and Daniel Carter in hoping one of them can simply take over the position as current New York Jets rookie Israel Abanikanda did a year ago.
It hasn’t happened. The Panthers are 12th in the 14-team ACC in yards rushing per game (143.3). While a borderline non-existent passing game that has allowed opponents to focus on stopping the run is part of the problem, so is a lack of consistency. Pitt ran for 67 yards on its first series against the Mountaineers and managed just 63 the rest of the game.
“You learn, you learn from mistakes and stuff like that,” Hammond said. “It wasn’t frustrating. It’s football. That’s how it goes. You’re not always going to get the same look you got before.”
North Carolina has been terrific at keeping the chains moving.
The Tar Heels are No. 2 nationally in third-down conversion rate at 65.1% (28 for 43) on the season. That includes going 12 for 17 in the Minnesota win.
“I think we’ve tried to put ourselves in position by running plays that we know we can execute,” first-year offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey said. “I think that’s the biggest thing in third downs, trying to find the plays your players know already that are kind of ‘base plays’ that you can fit into third down. And then find ways to window-dress it and hide it a little bit.”
AP Sports Writer Aaron Beard in Chapel Hill, N.C., contributed to this report.
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