Let’s go ahead and get one thing out of the way—if you’re expecting to read a bunch of railing against the officiating in Saturday’s game you might as well move on. The officiating was horrid in multiple spots, and it did cause a shift in momentum, but as you’ll read, things were already on their way south before the officiating. Great teams put themselves in a position where the officiating doesn’t matter, and Carolina showed long ago they aren’t a great team.
Instead, we are going to just jump right into the winners, losers, and honorable mentions on a painful Saturday on which Carolina saw their ACC Championship Game hopes and any outside shot at a NY6 bowl game go away.
Cedric Grey: The defense once again wilted late in the game, but it wasn’t because of the effort of Gray. In the week where he accepted a bid to the Senior Bowl, he showed out again with eight total tackles. He’s living up to the awards, and it’s a real shame that the defense as a whole hasn’t been better to where he can get more kudos for the work he’s done.
JJ Jones: He was on the receiving end of a miraculous throw by Drake Maye that started to look like it was just a throwaway. He only had five catches for 60 yards, but he did have one touchdown catch, and he has a chance to be the leading receiver on the team next season. He’s gotten more confident as the year has gone on.
Drake Maye: It looked like it was a rough day for Maye—16 for 36, passing for 209 yards, a touchdown, and an interception when the game was really out of reach. But he also had several of his trademark magical escapes to save the team on third down, keeping them in it. It truly wasn’t his fault that the Tar Heels lost, and for purposes of NFL draft stock you can’t help but to think it continues to go up as Caleb Williams’ USC season has continued to crash and burn with a 38-20 lose it to UCLA. The Trojans, ranked higher than the Tar Heels ever were, finish their season at 7-5 which is guaranteed to be worse than the Tar Heels. Neither Williams nor Maye will be blamed for how their teams’ defenses flamed out, but the question as to who the top pick isn’t sealed, and now Maye gets one more week without Williams playing to show off his skill.
Omarion Hampton: No one is going to be harder on Hampton than Hampton, so saying this isn’t going to be any harsher—Hampton is one of the main reasons Carolina lost on Saturday. It hurts to say it, but with two fumbles inside the five that directly cost the Tar Heels points, he’s the reason the Tar Heels weren’t up at least 17-0 before Clemson scored. His fumbles meant the defense wasn’t rewarded for their earlier effort, and they’re the reason Clemson’s defense was able to get momentum behind them to let their offense find their footing. They’re also the reason officiating was able to affect the result of the game. Hampton was still, arguably, the best player on the field for the Tar Heels Saturday, which makes his fumbles just that much more painful.
Mack Brown: Because of his coaching style, I’ve avoided pointing out Brown over the coordinators, but on Saturday it became clear that the fan base has reached the end of the rope with Mack 2.0. A season that started 6-0 has sputtered yet again, and the Tar Heels are staring down the prospect of having two generational quarterbacks come through the program without ever even getting to ten wins, let alone any sort of championships. There is zero hope about the Tar Heels ending the season with a win against State, which would be their third loss in a row to the Wolfpack (while the Wolfpack is once again rising above expectations and have the potential to end with more wins than the Tar Heels). He came out with a statement this week that he’s not ready to retire, but this year-to-year life of the head coach is getting pretty tiresome. It might be time for him to move into another role in the athletic department, content in restoring Carolina back to a job someone will want.
Gene Chizik: Again, the loss wasn’t really the fault of the defense on Saturday; six of Clemson’s first seven drives ended with them giving the Tar Heels the ball back. Unfortunately, four of the next five ended in points for the Tigers, and that stretch decided the game. As much as you can blame Hampton for being a big reason the Tar Heels lost, the defense once again wearing out and not being able to overcome adversity is a hallmark of this crew since Chizik took over. It cost them games at the end of last season, and it’s a reason they are faltering again. If Mack Brown decides he wants one more turn at the helm, it needs to be with another coordinator leading the defense.
Tez Walker was the leading receiver on the day with four catches for 70 yards, and he should have had more if he hadn’t been interfered with multiple times. He’s going to be a focal point of coverage for the Wolfpack next weekend, and if he can show out again it’ll likely be the last time we see him play in a Tar Heel uniform. It’s been fun…the defense felt the loss of Aliyah Huzzie, which underscores just how important a player he’s become for the Tar Heels. If he’s missing next weekend while Brennan Armstrong has started to get his bearings, it could be a long day…finally a tip of the cap to special teams. All the punts were cleanly kicked, and the Tar Heels sniffed out a fake punt early on, clearly learning from last week. It’s nice to see that they, at least, weren’t the reason Carolina lost.
This coming Saturday brings an end to the regular season, and perhaps the careers of several generational Tar Heels. Here’s hoping they can go out with one last win in Raleigh against an amped-up crowd.