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Pitt Football

Pitt’s Unique Task of Stopping a North Carolina Offense Led by Star Drake Maye

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Trevor Lawrence’s first time playing Pitt came in the ACC championship game during his freshman season at Clemson in 2018. Clemson won 42-10.

The second time came during Lawrence’s junior season in 2020. Clemson won 52-17.

In the two meetings, Lawrence completed 62% of his pass attempts for 521 yards and four touchdowns. His junior season showing (26-of-37 for 403 and two touchdowns) was completed in just three quarters.

It’s no secret that Lawrence, a national champion and Heisman finalist at Clemson, was a good college quarterback. He was the No. 1 selection in the 2021 NFL Draft, obviously, the first quarterback selected. The first quarterback selected in the 2022 NFL Draft, of course, was Kenny Pickett.

Drake Maye, just a redshirt freshman with seven career starts under his belt, will have some stiff competition for the top quarterback honor if he wants to test the 2024 NFL Draft. But Narduzzi is very, very confident that Maye will be a first round draft pick whenever he declares.

“The first thing I’ll say is, he’s a first round quarterback,” Narduzzi said Thursday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “You can mark that down now. Redshirt freshman. He will be a first round quarterback. I have no doubt about it.

“He’s got the size, he’s got the athletic ability, he’s got great vision, he’s calm in the pocket. He just goes from here to over there, and it’s like, ‘Did he even look over there?’ He’s just really talented. He’s a natural quarterback, in my opinion. He can scramble, he can run, he can do it all.”

In Maye’s first season as the starting quarterback at North Carolina, he’s thrown for 2,283 yards and 24 touchdowns to three interceptions on 162-of-231 passing attempts (70% completion). In seven games.

Maye also leads North Carolina in rushing with 378 yards and three touchdowns on 84 carries (4.5 yards per carry). He’s not quite the runner that his predecessor is, but he’s more than capable of both extending plays and scrambling.

“Obviously, you know (Sam) Howell’s in the NFL, but I think Drake is a really good quarterback,” Erick Hallett said. “I think he plays differently from Howell in the fact that he’s not as much of a runner. I think his build is a little slimmer, but I think he also has an NFL-level arm. … I think he does a really good job of extending the plays, kinda playing off schedule.”

Maye isn’t exactly a dual-threat quarterback, but he’s an athletic, elusive athlete in his own right. He isn’t a Malik Cunningham, an elite athlete occupying the quarterback position, but he isn’t a Sam Howell either — who is now an NFL quarterback.

“When I watch (North Carolina) last year, as good as their quarterback was, if (Howell) didn’t feel good, he would just tuck it and run or get hit and sacked,” Narduzzi said. “(Maye) is not like this. This guy’s elusive, he’s really smooth in pocket, there are times when he’s shuffling to the left away from it and he feels the pressure well.

“He’s as good a quarterback — we were talking as a defensive staff, he’s in the top two. We were discussing, who is this guy like? He’s like a Trevor Lawrence, is what I think he is. He can throw every ball, he’s not afraid to put it out there. He’s talented.”

North Carolina is 6-1 under Maye’s leadership, rising to No. 21 in the country, with just a lone loss to Notre Dame a month ago.

The North Carolina offense has been electric under Maye this season, scoring under 30 points per game just once this season, on the road against Miami.

  • Scoring offense: 41.7 points per game (tied-8th nationally, 1st in ACC)
  • Total offense: 506 yards per game (8th nationally, 1st in ACC)
  • Passing offense: 326.7 yards per game (9th nationally, 1st in ACC)
  • Passing efficiency: 179.96 (3rd nationally, 1st in ACC)

However, despite the success of UNC’s offense this season, an offense that’s scoring about. touchdown higher per game so far this season, Randy Bates doesn’t think the overall offensive scheme is that much different than it was last season — when Pitt beat UNC 30-23 at what-was-then Heinz Field.

“I think he’s a really good quarterback,” Bates said Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “He’s a great thrower, he’s big, he can run. Quite frankly though, I think they’re the same offense. Sam Howell was a great quarterback too. I think he’s just matured early and is doing a great job leading the team.”

Howell was a third-year starter for North Carolina last season, stepping into the starting role as a freshman himself in 2019, but even Maye’s relative inexperience — winning the starting job over the offseason and earning his first real college football experience — hasn’t been noticeable when watching his play on tape.

“When you’re about to grasp onto something, especially offense and I know they run a complicated offense over there at North Carolina,” Hallett said. “When you’re able to grasp onto it that quickly and work at a high level, I think (Maye’s) gonna be a really good player in the future.

“Everybody has their freshman moments, or their bone-headed moments, whether it be a freshman or fifth-year, sixth-year guy. I think he’s developed tremendously well. I don’t think he plays like a freshman by any stretch of the imagination.”

And despite one of the best wide receivers in the ACC at his disposal, it’s not as if Maye has been relying upon his top wideout. Nine different UNC players have racked up at least 100 yards this season.

Maye has spread the wealth for North Carolina this season, utilizing Downs, Antoine Green and J.J. Jones heavily in the passing game. And Omarion Hampton has been UNC’s top rushing threat — outside of Maye.

Maye has been accurate this season, completing just over 70% of his passing attempts, but the way he’s gone about attacking opposing defenses has varied. According to PFF, he’s racked up 23 big-time throws (the most in college football) to just eight turnover-worthy throws.

With an average depth of target of 11.1 yards and an adjusted completion percentage of 78.6 when accounting for nine drops, Maye’s precision has been admirable.

Maye has been an elite deep ball passer, throwing for 875 yards and nine touchdowns (three interceptions) on 25-of-43 passing attempts — with 20 big-time throws to just three turnover-worthy throws. the longer the throw, the better Maye has seemingly been.

But Maye has been just as good when attempting passes in the short or intermediate game, completing 109-of-143 passing attempts for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns.

If there’s an area where Maye has struggled, it’s been tough to find. Even when blitzed or under pressure, PFF has graded him positively. And if there have been areas where Maye has shown his age (just 19 years old) or inexperience, Pitt hasn’t seen it.

“Not very much,” Bates said. “(North Carolina has) only been behind a couple of games, but even in those situations, (Maye’s) mature and makes good decisions.”

However, when approaching a North Carolina offense led by Maye, Pitt’s defensive approach isn’t going to be bent out of shape. Maye is a serious challenge, yes, but North Carolina is the next team on the schedule.

“It’s not really different, I don’t want to say we look at the same opponent the same, but we look at the same,” Tylar Wiltz said Tuesday at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. “Because we’re athletic, just like them, we work hard, just like them.”

Maye is a tough test, as is the entire North Carolina offense, and but that doesn’t make Saturday’s game anything more than it is currently is. A football game.

“Well, the NCAA will not let us play with 12 guys,” Narduzzi said, “so we’ll have to go play football.”

Sandy Schall, Coldwell Banker
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