Middle Tennessee State was supposed to be the easy-to-digest, tasty appetizer for the Miami Hurricanes before a week off to cleanse the palate for the main course Saturday: the North Carolina Tar Heels (4-1, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference), who in recent years have left Miami reeling.
Now, with two losses behind them, the Hurricanes (2-2, 0-0) will face one of the best quarterbacks in the nation in their first of eight consecutive ACC games at 4 p.m. (ESPN2) at Hard Rock Stadium.
Should the Canes overcome remnants of any bye-week blues and conquer explosive redshirt freshman signal-caller Drake Maye as well as their own offensive inadequacies, the game would serve as a fresh start toward their goal of winning the Coastal Division and qualifying for the ACC Championship Game.
“Fight all four quarters,’’ said sophomore safety Kamren Kinchens. “We can’t come out slow. We gotta come out throwing punches. And after we do that, keep throwing punches, maintain the lead and win. Last year it came down to a play, but we won’t let it come to one play.’’
UM, which trails 12-11 all time against the Heels, is a 3 1/2-point favorite Saturday but has lost the past three games of the series. Last year’s game ended with UM, after rallying for 25 points in the second half, driving from its 28-yard line and getting to the UNC 16 late in the game before Tyler Van Dyke’s third-down pass was broken up, bounced off a Tar Heel and was intercepted. The Canes fell 45-42.
“In the second half, he ripped us,’’ UNC coach Mack Brown said this week of Van Dyke. “And they ran up and down the field and had a chance to win the game.’’
Two years ago, UNC set an NCAA record with a combined two-man rushing onslaught of 544 yards. Miami gave up 778 total yards, the most it ever allowed, to get trampled 62-26.
And in 2019, with 1:01 left, UM missed a 49-yard field-goal attempt wide left to give the Tar Heels the 28-25 victory.
2022 Tar Heels
But this season, it’s all about Maye, as the Tar Heels have one of the nation’s ugliest defenses in pretty much every category.
Maye? He’s 6-4 1/2, 220 pounds and leads the country with “134 points responsible for” and coming into the week, was tied with Mississippi State’s Will Rogers for a nation-leading 19 touchdowns. He was sixth nationally with 1,594 passing yards, 18th nationally with a 69.7 completion percentage and No. 4 in passing efficiency. After five games , Maye’s 19:1 touchdown to interception ratio is No. 1 in the country.
He is only one of four quarterbacks during the past 15 years to have thrown nine touchdown passes and no interceptions in their first two career starts.
“I don’t think there’s anything he does bad, quite frankly,’’ UM coach Mario Cristobal said of Maye. “He sees the field extremely well, his pocket presence is off the charts. The ball comes out fast, he’s very decisive. If there’s nothing there he has an incredible ability to make people miss, keep his eyes up the field and extend plays. And if there’s nothing to extend to, he takes off. And he’s hard to tackle. He makes you miss subtly. He’s always a contact plus-2 or 3 yards. He’s not afraid to put his head down and run you over. He’s a really impressive player.”
That doesn’t necessarily bode well for Miami, which gave up passing touchdowns of 71, 69 and 98 yards to Middle Tennessee — not to mention a 15-yard interception return.
Last year, UNC receiver Josh Downs, who has scored two touchdowns in both games he has played this season, had 11 catches for 96 yards against UM last season.
“Dynamic,’’ is how Kinchens described him. “The quarterback is always looking for him.’’
Defensively, UNC is ranked 97th of 131 FBS teams in allowing third-down conversions, 123rd in first-down defense, 102nd in passing yards allowed (257.8 per game), 112th in rushing defense (193 yards), 118th in red-zone defense, 113th in scoring defense (33.6), 114th in team tackles for loss and 120th in total defense (450.8).
This would be an ideal opportunity for struggling quarterback Van Dyke to rebound from his funk, although the Heels improved this past week with a 41-10 win over Virginia Tech (UM’s opponent after UNC).
“Tyler is a baller,’’ insisted tight end Will Mallory. “I’m with him all the way and everyone else is, to. We know what we have.
“I’d say the mood is hungry. We’ve gotta get out there and start rolling again. Guys are fired up and hungry to get back out there and play.”
UM defensive end Elijah Roberts said the ACC goal is “big.’’
“That’s what you’re here for,’’ Roberts said. “That’s what we’re playing for. As far as going 2-2, that’s behind us right now. Their offense, yeah, they’re really good. It’s on us to contain them.’’