Maye throws 5 TDs in first start, UNC overwhelms Florida A&M in opener

The redshirt freshman quarterback threw for 294 yards to lead the Tar Heels

UNC's Drake Maye looks to pass against Florida A&M's Dre Jones during the Tar Heels'56-24 season-opening win Saturday in Chapel Hill. (Chris Seward / AP Photo)

CHAPEL HILL — After a cancellation scare caused by Florida A&M having 20 players declared ineligible to play, the Tar Heels hosted Saturday’s season-opening game and took care of business, handing the Rattlers a 56-24 loss on a rainy Saturday evening at Kenan Stadium.

Coming into the game, UNC coach Mack Brown had a lot of questions about his inexperienced offense, but his young team delivered some answers. The Tar Heels’ offense was carried by its underclassmen, namely redshirt freshman quarterback Drake Maye and freshman running back Omarion Hampton.

Maye threw for 294 yards and five touchdowns on 29-of-37 passing in his first collegiate start, adding 55 yards on the ground.

“I’m very proud of Drake,” Brown said. “One of the best first games I’ve ever seen. He was poised, he was accurate and his running ability was good.”

The redshirt freshman also spread the wealth, completing passes 10 different players in the win.

“It felt good to be out there with the guys,” Maye said. “We have a lot of talent, we’ve just got to put it all together.”

Maye became the first UNC quarterback to throw for five touchdowns in their first collegiate start and also the first to achieve the feat in a season opener.

Hampton, another first-time starter, complemented Maye well.

The freshman had 101 yards and two touchdowns on 14 carries to become the first UNC running back to rush for more than 100 yards in their first collegiate game since Choo Choo Justice in 1946.

The Tar Heels finished with 314 yards on the ground by Hampton, Maye and five others. In all, four players rushed for at least 50 yards.

“I feel like our whole running back room is really talented, and that makes us better,” Hampton said.

UNC got on the board first by scoring on its second drive. Maye had the key play with a 42-yard run, which he immediately followed with a 19-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Kamari Morales.

But the Tar Heels defense — led by Gene Chizik, who like Brown is back in Chapel Hill for a second tour of duty to try and fix the struggling unit — struggled early as FAMU responded with an eight-play, 75-yard drive of its own to tie the game 7-7.

Maye counterpunched with another touchdown drive, capping it off with a second touchdown throw on a 23-yard pass down the middle to wide-open sophomore tight end Bryson Nesbit

“I just told myself that I’d been practicing for a year and a half now and all the work I’ve done was going to pay off,” Maye said. “Just trust the process and trust my teammates.”

The Tar Heels went up 21-7 when Maye connected with freshman wide receiver Gavin Blackwell for his first collegiate touchdown.

The Rattlers again made it a one-score game late in the first half and got the ball back for a chance to again tie the game before halftime.

But junior cornerback Storm Duck intercepted FAMU quarterback Jeremy Moussa deep in Rattlers territory to set up Maye’s fourth touchdown of the opening half, a two-yard toss to star receiver Josh Downs.

That gave UNC momentum heading into the break, and the Tar Heels carried it over into the second half.

Hampton rushed for two touchdowns and George Pettaway added another. Downs also scored a second time, connecting with Maye for a 27-yard score — Maye’s fifth passing touchdown of the night. Downs, who finished with a team-high nine catches for 78 yards, has at least eight receptions in 12 of his last 14 games.

Chizik’s defense, meanwhile, also settled in. Sophomore linebacker Power Echols led the way with nine solo tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack.

“I just go out there and have fun,” Echols said. “I love the game. I play with passion all over my body, my heart’s on my sleeve. I just go out there and try to dominate.”

The UNC defense held Florida A&M to only 56 rushing yards and forced two turnovers, both leading to points. But the Tar Heels’ secondary allowed 279 yards against not only weaker competition but also a depleted roster.

“There were a lot of guys out there that hadn’t played,” Brown explained. “I do think that we’ve got some work to do, but the defensive staff has also never had a game together. I think we will all see a tremendous amount of improvement in a short time.”

Of further concern was an injury to star cornerback Tony Grimes, who was hurt attempting a tackle on Florida A&M’s second drive of the game. He missed the rest of the night with an upper-body injury and Brown did not have an update on his status following the game.

With a win in their pocket, the Tar Heels will now prepare for a trip to Boone to face in-state foe Appalachian State next Saturday in the Mountaineers’ season opener. It will be just the second meeting between the two schools since the Mountaineers made the jump to FBS. App State won that game, defeating UNC 34-31 in Chapel Hill in 2019 in Brown’s first year back with the Tar Heels.