CHARLOTTE, N.C. –– Without their elite play-caller in Drake Maye and seven other starters also missing, North Carolina’s noticeably depleted lineup was thoroughly handled by West Virginia Wednesday night.
The Mountaineers delivered the Tar Heels their fourth bowl game loss in a row after a 30-10 beat down at the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
Within the first eleven seconds of the contest, WVU’s Traylon Ray hauled in a 75-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Garrett Greene. And from then on, UNC’s fate was sealed. Greene threw for 204 yards and a touchdown, forcing three UNC turnovers. The Tar Heels’ several missed assignments on special teams plagued them the most. Mistakes that sunk their chances at getting a win.
One of these mistakes was allowing a 78-yard punt return for a touchdown by cornerback Beanie Bishop Jr., which was the program’s first since 2012. The return revealed how blotched this defense is without its leadership – namely Cedric Gray, who on Dec. 11 announced both his declaration for the 2024 NFL Draft and decision
to opt out of the bowl game.
But let’s shift towards the flashes I saw in redshirt freshman quarterback Conner Harrell.
The game was his first collegiate start, so understandably there was some shakiness. He tweaked his ankle in the second half – marking a change in an otherwise decent night where he’d shown off the elusiveness and speed he brings to the position.
His longest run came during a third-and 15 situation where he dashed for 17 yards. On the ensuing play, he gained another 15 yards to put his team within WVU’s 20-yard line. He completed 18-for-27 passes and totaled 199 passing yards and a touchdown.
As the contest continued, however, he was seen limping on the sideline and was held to just 25 rush yards by the end of the game. He was also bogged down by a pair of interceptions that, coupled with his limited mobility, were a dagger in the Tar Heels offensive outing.
During his postgame press conference, he admitted that he needs to be more of a multi-dimensional player. This mindset from Harrell aligns well with the arrival of Texas A&M transfer Max Johnson who comes in with four years of experience and serves as the main competition for the starting spot. These two and the possible emergence of others, will be a defining moment of the offseason.
Harrell managed the game well even with mistakes, but the bigger picture is that the team as a collective had far too many mistakes that mirrored their downfall last season as well. With the arrival of some new weaponry, battles won’t just exist in the quarterback room, but throughout all position groups.
The 2024 class consists of 22 signees and three others have also committed to the Tar Heels via the transfer portal: offensive lineman Austin Blaske from Georgia, tight end Jake Johnson—yes Max’s brother—from Texas A&M, and safety Jakeen Harris from NC State.
It’s also important to remember the injuries of key players. including tight ends John Copenhaver and Bryson Nesbit – both out with lower-body injuries – and receivers Nate McCollum and Kobe Paysour who also watched from the sidelines. Paysour recorded three touchdowns in the five games he played this season.
These next few weeks will be filtered with change for the Tar Heels and new faces will undoubtedly have to step up to the plate. But if anything’s clear, it’s that they will look for answers on why they’re prone to season-ending losing streaks, as they look to head in a better direction in the new year.