UNC vs Oregon football Holiday Bowl: Heisman battle preview

Oregon coach Dan Lanning (left) and UNC coach Mack Brown (right) joke with the media Tuesday during the Holiday Bowl press conference at Petco Park in San Deigo.

Oregon coach Dan Lanning (left) and UNC coach Mack Brown (right) joke with the media Tuesday during the Holiday Bowl press conference at Petco Park in San Deigo.

CL Brown

Wednesday’s Holiday Bowl might not be the last battle between North Carolina and Oregon, despite the schools not appearing on each other’s schedule in 2023.

Both quarterbacks — redshirt freshman Drake Maye for UNC and senior Bo Nix for the Ducks — were Heisman Trophy candidates this season, and with both returning next year they are poised to again be in contention.

Maye finished 10th on Heisman ballots after passing for 4,115 yards this season and ranking fifth in ACC history behind only Lamar Jackson and DeShaun Watson in total offense. Nix was being mentioned as a Heisman contender until an ankle injury in a loss to Washington ended his campaign.

The pair tied for third among NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision players accounting for 42 touchdowns: Maye had 35 passing and seven rushing, while Nix had 28 passing TDs and his 14 rushing touchdowns led all FBS quarterbacks.

Nix, who started at Auburn for three years before transferring to Oregon, announced he’d return to school for a fifth season.

“That’s two of the best quarterbacks in college football that are both coming back next year,” said UNC coach Mack Brown, who later added, “In modern day college football, when you got a quarterback you got a chance, and these are two of the best quarterbacks in the country.”

The Holiday Bowl, which started in 1978, has historically been known for its offensive outbursts and wild endings. In half of the games that have been played, the winning team has scored 35 or more points. (Even the losing team has scored that many 11 times.)

The game wasn’t played the past two seasons due to the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 and UCLA backing out of last year’s game against N.C. State after an outbreak on its roster.

This year’s edition could add another entry to the high-scoring Holiday Bowls because of the two signal callers.

“It’s no secret with the offense runs through Drake and he’s one of the best quarterbacks in college football,” Oregon coach Dan Lanning said. “…His accuracy, his poise in the pocket under duress is really, really impressive and his ability to play a four-quarter game. You can see the leadership really runs through him, similar to our quarterback.”

The similarities don’t stop there.

Like Maye, Nix’s father also was a college quarterback. Patrick Nix played at Auburn from 1992-95 and was a starter as a junior and senior.

Mark Maye, who played at UNC from 1984-87, didn’t formally coach Drake in high school, but was responsible for teaching him the game. Patrick Nix coached his son at Pinson Valley High School in Alabama.

“He’s raised a lot like Drake in a coaching family like Mark coached Drake for years in 7-on-7 and bringing him up,” Brown said. “They’re both tall, they can both see, they can run, they can make plays with their feet.”

Nix generally hasn’t had to do so out of necessity. Oregon leads the nation having only allowed four sacks this season. Brown even joked that he missed a chance to get to Nix.

Brown toured the USS Abraham Lincoln in a group that included Nix. Brown said as Nix was going up a set of stairs in front of him that he thought about grabbing his ankle.

“There were too many cameras,” Brown joked. “And I didn’t want to hurt him bad, this is just one game.”

The Heels are going to have to do something to slow the Ducks offense that ranks in the top 10 nationally in many categories including fourth in total yards per game (507.8) and ninth in scoring while averaging 39.9 points per game.

Carolina ranked ninth in passing offense averaging 317.2 yards per game and 15th in total offense averaging 473.6 yards per game. But it won’t exactly be the same offense heading into Wednesday’s game.

Offensive coordinator Phil Longo left to take the same position at Wisconsin and offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. joined him. Leading receiver Josh Downs opted out of playing in the game to begin preparing for the NFL draft.

Receivers coach Lonnie Galloway will be calling the plays for the Heels, but Brown said the adjustments Maye and the offense has gone through are not excuses.

“All we can ask our team to do is give us 100 percent,” Brown said. “If you play the best you can play, that’s all I want. There’s really no pressure other than do the best you can do and if the best we can do is not good enough to beat Oregon, then we’ll get ready for Spring practice. But I don’t want any excuses.”

C.L. Brown covers the University of North Carolina for The News & Observer. Brown brings more than two decades of reporting experience including stints as the beat writer on Indiana University and the University of Louisville. After a long stay at the Louisville Courier-Journal, where he earned an APSE award, he’s had stops at ESPN.com, The Athletic and even tried his hand at running his own website, clbrownhoops.com.

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