CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Heisman Trophy hopeful Drake Maye threw for 269 yards and two touchdowns, North Carolina’s upstart defense had nine sacks and the 21st-ranked Tar Heels beat border rival South Carolina 31-17 on Saturday night in a neutral-site game.
British Brooks ran for 103 yards and Omarion Hampton added two short TD runs for the Tar Heels.
Maye, who grew up in the Charlotte suburb of Huntersville, led scoring drives on five of North Carolina’s first six possessions, excluding a kneel down at the end of the first half.
The redshirt sophomore made NFL-type throws — back-shoulder fades, deep outs and sidearm tosses under pressure — while repeatedly keeping alive plays with this feet. He wasn’t perfect, with two interceptions in the game’s final 18 minutes as the Tar Heels were trying to put the game away.
But Maye didn’t need to be perfect on this day.
The Tar Heels got an unexpected lift from Gene Chizik’s defense, which struggled most of last season. The Tar Heels had just 17 sacks all of 2022 and surrendered 30.8 points and 436.5 yards per game.
North Carolina moved the ball at will in the first half.
Maye hit Kobe Paysour in stride with a 34-yard touchdown strike along the right sideline to give the Tar Heels a 17-14 lead just before at halftime. North Carolina could have scored more had it not been for two drive-killing drops by wide receiver Gavin Blackwell in South Carolina territory, including one on fourth down.
Blackwell was pressed into a bigger role with starting wideouts Devontez Walker (ineligible) and Nate McCollum (lower body injury).
The Gamecocks appeared to gain momentum when they pulled one out of the Sean Payton playbook and recovered an onside kick to start the second half. But UNC smothered the drive before it began, forcing the Gamecocks to turn the ball over on downs.
The Tar Heels capitalized with Blackwell redeeming himself with a sliding 37-yard catch at the South Carolina 1 to set up Hampton’s second touchdown. Maye then connected on an 18-yard completion with tight end John Copenhaver, who made a one-handed grab in the end zone to put the Tar Heels up 31-14.
North Carolina: It was expected that Maye would play well, but UNC’s defensive pressure turned some heads with Amari Gainer recording two sacks and Cedric Gray and Beau Atkinson combining for three. The Tar Heels made quality stops at key times, particularly in the second half.
South Carolina: The offensive line is going to need some big time help if the Gamecocks are to make some noise in the SEC. They gave up nine sacks to a defense that wasn’t very good season and didn’t give QB Spencer Rattler enough of a chance to make plays. Rattler threw for 353 yards on 30-of-39 passing.
The Gamecocks lost CB Nick Emmanwori (hamstring) and OT Cason Henry (lower body) to injuries in the first first quarter. They did not return.
The Tar Heels should make a slight jump in the polls after a promising win over a South Carolina team that ranked just outside the AP Top 25.
UNC’S TOP RECEIVERS OUT
Walker continues to await word from the NCAA on his eligibility.
The NCAA has denied the waiver for Walker to play immediately, citing revised rules limiting waivers for two-time transfers. The school has appealed for Walker, an in-state product from Charlotte, and coach Mack Brown criticized the NCAA on Friday.
Walker published a letter he wrote to NCAA on social media pleading for his right to play.
McCollum didn’t play because of a lower body injury.
Maye received a good luck handshake before the game from Washington Commanders quarterback and former Tar Heel Sam Howell. … ACC Commissioner James Phillips and SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey both attended the game. … The Duke’s Mayo Classic organizers honored Jimmy Buffet, who passed away Friday night, with the playing of “Margaritaville” in the second quarter. It quickly turned in a sing-along at Bank of America Stadium.
North Carolina: Hosts Appalachian State on Saturday.
South Carolina: Hosts Furman on Saturday.