CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — Drake Maye figured Nate McCollum was ready for a big game as North Carolina’s top target Saturday.
“He told me before the game: ‘Man, Drake, I’m itching to play,’” Maye said.
He sure looked like it, too.
Maye threw for a season-high 414 yards to go with two touchdowns, while McCollum flirted with a single-game UNC receiving record as the 20th-ranked Tar Heels pushed past Minnesota 31-13 on Saturday.
Maye overcame two interceptions and ultimately provided the only reliable source of offense for the Tar Heels (3-0), who were unable to run the ball against one of nation’s top defenses but still posted 519 yards.
And so much of it hinged on McCollum, who is in his first year at UNC after transferring from Georgia Tech. He had missed the season opener against South Carolina due to injury, then had one catch in limited snaps last week in a double-overtime win against Appalachian State. But coach Mack Brown said McCollum had indicated he was ready to play more, and he was terrific from the start against the Gophers (2-1).
McCollum had 15 catches and 165 yards with a first-quarter touchdown, and ended up falling one catch shy of tying the Tar Heels’ single-game record.
“This week, they pushed me a little bit, I pushed myself and did a little extra after practice and I felt good,” McCollum said.
Clearly. Maye targeted him on 21 of his 40 throws. The scoring catch came when McCollum got a step on his defender, then raised his arm to get Maye’s attention on the rollout. Maye went deep to McCollum, who snagged the 46-yard score through contact from defender Aidan Gousby.
“It just kind of happened that way,” Maye said of McCollum’s targets. “Obviously I’m just trying to throw to the open guy, and Nate got open a lot tonight.”
Omarion Hampton and British Brooks each ran for short TDs, with Brooks’ 1-yard punch-in clinching this one by pushing UNC to a 31-13 lead at the 5-minute mark of the fourth quarter.
Darius Taylor ran for 138 yards and a touchdown shortly before halftime to lead Minnesota, but the Gophers generated little else beyond the dynamic running from the true freshman.
“We had plenty of opportunities,” Minnesota coach P.J. Fleck said. “I think everybody saw that. We had people open all over down the field. We had dropped balls, tipped balls, balls that were inaccurate, balls that missed the explosive plays. And we were still in the game.”
Minnesota: The Gophers had gone 19-1 against nonconference foes under Fleck, and the defense had led this year’s effort by entering this game ranked in the top 10 nationally in total defense (223.5 yards) and scoring defense (8.0). That unit smothered UNC’s rushing game most of the day (105 yards allowed, 2.8 yards per carry) after the Tar Heels got 234 yards on the ground from Hampton last week. But the Gophers struggled to stop Maye from pushing the ball downfield.
UNC: Maye finally had a big passing game to start his season of high expectations, but this was as much about McCollum’s performance, too. The Tar Heels have needed to find a new top target with Josh Downs in the NFL. That was expected to be Kent State transfer Devontez Walker, but he has been unable to receive a waiver to play immediately. On Saturday it was McCollum — and now his chance to keep it.
Athan Kaliakmanis threw for just 133 yards on 11-for-29 passing for Minnesota. He also left briefly in the third quarter due to leg cramps, with backup Cole Kramer coming on to take over but ultimately throwing a deep-ball interception to end a drive with UNC leading just 21-13.
“I feel like everybody showed up but me, honestly,” Kaliakmanis said.
THE STAT THAT MATTERED
UNC converted 12 of 17 third downs in this one after entering the game as one of the national leaders in that category. Minnesota went just 3 for 12.
North Carolina, which opened the year at No. 21 and was No. 17 last week, could see a modest bump with a second nonconference win against a Power Five opponent. A win would’ve given Minnesota the chance to crack the AP Top 25 after spending one week at No. 21 last September.
Walker’s situation remains prominent in the minds of UNC’s players and fans. The team wore shirts with his No. 9 and name before the game, while Walker paced the sideline checking in on Maye and teammates during the game.
By the final minutes, UNC students were loudly chanting “Free Tez Walker!”
Minnesota: The Gophers return to the Big Ten looking for a 2-0 start in league play when they visit Northwestern next Saturday.
UNC: The Tar Heels open Atlantic Coast Conference play by visiting Pittsburgh next Saturday night.
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