When bowl matchups were announced earlier this month, many fixated on the Holiday Bowl having No. 15 Oregon taking on ACC Coastal Champ North Carolina. Not only was the West Coast postseason fixture back after a two-year COVID-induced absence, but it offered the potential for a massive amount of offensive fireworks between a pair of top-25 offenses.
While the scoreboard didn’t quite light up as much as some had expected, the game nevertheless delivered plenty of explosive plays and late pyrotechnics, as the Ducks used a two-minute drive in the final seconds to knock off the Tar Heels in a 28-27 thriller at Petco Park in San Diego.
Quarterback Bo Nix, playing 10 days after he announced he would return for another season in Eugene, saved his best throw of the game for the dying embers, finding slot receiver Chase Cota for a 6-yard touchdown pass on fourth down that just snuck over the goal line. Kicker Camden Lewis added the extra point to make the game-winner official, even if he did give the crowd on hand a brief heart stoppage by doinking the kick off the upright and through.
“We were able to deliver because our defense stopped them,” said Nix after the game. “Everybody made a play, couldn’t have done it without each and every one of them.
“Ten wins, to send our seniors out this way … I couldn’t be prouder at how those guys battled today. It was a complete team win.”
Nix finished the game 22-for-30 for 205 yards and two touchdowns (one interception). The veteran signal-caller only rushed five times for six yards, but did look much healthier in the pocket after dealing with a lower leg injury at the end of the regular season.
The narrow margin was nothing new for the Tar Heels, who played their FBS-high ninth one-score game this season.
While the 9-5 overall record plus a division title in ACC play will likely be viewed as a success for Mack Brown and company, few in powder blue making the cross-country trip to Southern California will be happy with the way they let the bowl game slip away with missed scoring opportunities and suspect defense down the stretch. In many ways, it was somewhat emblematic of the season itself for UNC, which got off to a 9-1 start and threatened to make a run at the College Football Playoff before ending the year with four straight heartbreaking losses.
Meanwhile, the Ducks end their first campaign under Dan Lanning with a 10-3 mark thanks to the outcome on Wednesday night, taking some sting out of losing to rivals Washington and Oregon State down the stretch last month.
Oregon tailback Bucky Irving had 149 yards and two first-half scores to help pace the team on the ground, earning Holiday Bowl Offensive Player of the Game honors as a result. Still, it was Nix that might be better remembered by fans after he took over in the fourth quarter and led a pair of touchdown drives to erase a double-digit deficit in the final 10 minutes.
Here are three other takeaways from the Holiday Bowl:
1. The hype for Drake Maye is about to skyrocket even more
Even in the age of the transfer portal, opt-outs and early departures for the NFL, bowl games provide our last memories of the season and can therefore become a bit of a hype machine. Such will undoubtedly be the case for UNC quarterback Maye, who was already earning high praise for his work as a first-time starter this season but could be elevated even further after making some incredible throws in the Holiday Bowl.
The soon-to-be third-year player finished the game with a respectable 206 yards passing and three touchdowns despite playing without top target Josh Downs. It felt like Maye was often carrying the team offensively, and he looked silky smooth with pretty much every dropback. His control of the offense was impressive, and he certainly looked a lot older than just a redshirt freshman with the way he moved through reads and found open receivers.
With a national audience in primetime on FOX — many of whom probably didn’t see much of the signal-caller this season — tuning in for the outing, they were treated to somebody who will likely be the face of college football going into the 2023 season right next to USC’s Heisman Trophy winner Caleb Williams. Sometimes the hype coming out of bowl games can be a bit much, but in the case of the Tar Heels’ star, it is probably warranted.
Drake Maye passed for 206 yards and rushed for 49 more in the Holiday Bowl.
2. Oregon missed Kenny Dillingham
UNC entered the Holiday Bowl ranked 103rd in FBS in scoring defense and 115th in yards per play allowed. In other words, the defense wasn’t great coming in, and was dealing with a number of starters missing for various reasons.
Yet Oregon was unable to capitalize on that group in large part because it seemed to really miss former offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham (who left to become head coach at Arizona State). The Ducks had essentially an entire month to come up with a plan for the game, but it felt like once the early script ran out, the play-calling combination of WR coach Junior Adams and TE coach Drew Mehringer didn’t have a ton of creative answers at what to do next.
Early success on the ground (9.8 YPC in the first half) dried up as the box became more crowded in the second half, and the downfield passing element that was ever-present under Dillingham never arrived (just two passes over 15 yards on the night).
Lanning has gotten a lot right as a rookie head coach this season in winning 10 games, but finding a veteran OC to help keep Nix and the offense humming is going to be a big offseason priority over the next few weeks.
3. It’s time to stop playing bowls in baseball parks
There are four bowls taking place at baseball stadiums this season, and one common theme that seems to be developing in 2022 is that it’s becoming less and less of a novelty and more and more of a health and safety issue playing in such venues.
At the Guaranteed Rate Bowl on Tuesday, scores of Wisconsin and Oklahoma State players looked like they were on a slip-n-slide given the state of the turf at Chase Field, and it was much the same case on Wednesday night at Petco Park.
While the grounds crew did its best to get the temporary grass patches to look ready for a couple of hundred pounds of football players pushing, pulling and running around — it was mostly to no avail. There were divots that would make a PGA Tour pro shudder and quite the uneven surface that had sand seeping up in spots. A number of defenders slipped in allowing scores, while a handful of third-down conversions came up short after the turf monster contributed to a tackle. In other words, not the best of ways to play a college football game.
Luckily it didn’t appear as though anybody tore a knee ligament, but it might be time to limit the number of bowl games that take place outside of purpose-built football stadiums so that the field itself isn’t a storyline running parallel to the action between the lines.
Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.
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