CHAPEL HILL, N.C. –– “He became Josh Downs for us today,” said UNC head coach Mack Brown of Nate McCollum after the 31-13 win over Minnesota on Saturday night. “He was that go-to guy.”
Brown isn’t the first person to make the comparison between the two receivers and he certainly won’t be the last.
“He’s got that same kind of twist that Josh has when getting open,” Drake Maye told reporters on Nate’s playmaking on Saturday.
“He told me before the game, ‘Drake I’m itching to play,” he continued. “He was kind of jumping up and down so once you hear that from anybody, you expect them to be clicking on all cylinders and he showed that.”
Georgia Tech transfer Nate McCollum first saw action against App State last week, but only played a couple snaps.
On Saturday, however, McCollum showed up and showed out, exploding for 15 catches for 165 yards, 130 of which came in the first half alone. Maye targeted McCollum repeatedly on the first drive of the game, and threw a 46-yard straight dime to cap the play and give the Tar Heels a 7-0 lead in the opening minutes of the game.
Despite the comparisons to former receiving star Josh Downs, who earned his first win as a receiver for the Colts yesterday, McCollum is eager to establish his own, unique identity as a Tar Heel.
“I’m my own player,” he said. “JD that’s my boy, I grew up with him and he’s a heck of a player. I feel like we are similar players, but two completely different players.”
McCollum’s 15 receptions were only one away from the UNC single-game record, a record that is most recently held by Ryan Switzer who achieved the feat back in 2016 with 16 touches. It was a debut for him to remember and yet another historic game for the Heisman contender.
Drake threw for 414 yards in what was the second 400-yard passing game of his career. His career high was against Wake Forest in 2022 where his 448 yards led the Tar Heels to clinch the Coastal Division title. He has now amassed over 5,000 passing yards in his two years starting for UNC.
While Drake made a few early mistakes, having a pair of interceptions in the first half, he made up for it late in the second quarter after a 19-yard pass to tight end Bryson Nesbit to extend the lead to 21-3. He finished the game with two scores.
UNC was able to hold out offensively completing 12-of-17 on third down conversions in their first-ever matchup against the Golden Gophers.
The defense also came up big on Saturday, forcing a three-and-out after Omarion Hampton’s 1-yard rush into the endzone. They held Minnesota to just 133 yards passing, but gave up “too many rushing yards” according to Brown, allowing 170. As a unit, the defense held the Golden Gophers to just 13 points including eight pass breakups.
An interception by Virginia Tech transfer Armani Chatman late in the third quarter served as the final blow to the Gophers who were unable to register another score against the Tar Heels. With a 42-yard field goal by Noah Burnette and a 1-yard touchdown rush by British Brooks sealed the win, his first in two years.
One of my favorite moments from this game was the sack made by junior defensive lineman Jacolbe Cowan who chased down third-year quarterback Athan Kaliakmanis and dragged him down in the fourth quarter.
“It’s just a testament to his hard work,” said Power Echols in support of Cowan’s second career sack.
If this team has shown anything these past three games, it’s that they are versatile. Each of the games they’ve played, they’ve won in a different way. Against South Carolina, it was their defensive prowess. Against App State, it was their run game. Against Minnesota, it was their passing game.
Barring a few mistakes here and there, this team is versatile and showing strength on both sides of the football. And while 3-0 is a good start for the Tar Heels, they are now challenged with a tougher slate of opponents as they open conference play this weekend.
Coach Brown has emphasized that his team tends to not do well after success, especially after the disastrous 2022 season finale where we saw the Tar Heels celebrate their Coastal win and then go on to lose four straight to end the season.
“It’s a different season each week,” he said. “We can’t get too comfortable.”
The Tar Heels will open ACC play on the road against the Pittsburgh Panthers this Saturday Sept. 23 at 8p.m. on ACCN.