Ducks score late, stun Tar Heels in Holiday Bowl 28-27

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

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Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

The 15th-ranked Oregon Ducks (10-3, 7-2) defeated the North Carolina Tar Heels (9-5, 6-2), 28-27, in the 43rd annual Holiday Bowl at Petco Park in front of an announced crowd of 36,242.

Oregon secured its second straight 10-win season and 13th since 2000 in head coach Dan Lanning’s first season. 

“Real proud of our players to be able to cap this season off,” said Oregon head coach Dan Lanning postgame. “We talked about coming in tonight and really finishing the season with not a period but an exclamation point, and I would say that was an exclamation point.”

“We were ready to play tonight and played our hearts out,” said UNC head coach Mack Brown postgame. “Very disappointed that we didn’t win but got to make a play here or there, and they’re a great football team, and nobody gave us a chance in the game, and we had a chance with one second left.  That’s all we could ask for in this situation.”

The matchup featured two of the top 15 offenses in the country, and the two starting quarterbacks (Oregon’s Bo Nix and North Carolina’s Drake Maye) entered the game as two of only three players in FBS with at least 3,000 passing yards and 500 rushing yards this season and tied for third among all Power 5 players with 42 total touchdowns. 

Both showed why their decisions to return in 2023 thrilled their coaches and fanbases.

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

The first half belonged to Maye, who threw for three touchdowns. Nix had the last laugh, leading the Ducks’ comeback from a ten-point deficit with two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter. The second came with 24 seconds remaining in the game and the Ducks down six, facing a 4th and 2 from the UNC six. 

Nix found Chase Cota across the middle, and he spun forward with the ball crossing the goal line for the score. The extra point by Camden Lewis bounced off the left upright but still went through the crossbar to give the Ducks the 28-27 lead. 

“It was a complete team win, and I’m so happy right now,” said Nix postgame. 

Coach Lanning made it clear the play that resulted in the winning touchdown was called by Nix in the huddle. 

“That’s one of our go-to plays,” said Nix when asked why that specific play. “We feel really good about that play. We’ve run it multiple times. It’s hard to stop. It puts (Troy Franklin) and (Terrance Ferguson) and (Cota) in situations to do what they do best.  If we get housed (all-out blitz by the defense), he is going to get a natural pick there going across the middle, and (Bucky Irving) did a great job of picking up the protection, and we threw it over the middle and had a completion for a touchdown.”

A hail-mary pass from midfield by Maye on the final play of the game fell incomplete in the end zone. Coach Brown said postgame they tried to get it to the 35 to try a field goal, but from where they were, a 59-yard attempt was not feasible.

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

The Ducks outgained the Tar Heels 414-335. Nix completed 23 of 30 passes for 205 yards, while Maye completed 18 of 35 passes for 206 yards and rushed for 45 yards. 

Oregon leading rusher Bucky Irving compiled 149 yards on 13 carries and two touchdowns and earned Offensive Player of the Game.  

Linebacker Mase Funa led the Ducks with seven tackles and two tackles for loss on his way to Defensive Player of the Game. Funa confirmed in the postgame press conference that he will return next year for his super senior season. 

Both teams were missing All-Conference performers who opted out of the game to prepare for the NFL Draft. UNC was without First-Team All-ACC wide receiver Josh Downs. Oregon was without defensive back Christian Gonzales (First Team All-Pac12), linebacker Noah Sewell (Second Team All-Pac 12), and defensive lineman DJ Johnson who had six of the team’s 16 sacks on the season.  

Oregon led the nation with a +7.8 points per game differential in the “Middle Eight” (last four minutes of the first half and first four minutes of the second half) but was a -7 tonight.

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

For most of the first half, the teams traded scores. Oregon scored the first points of the game on a 2-yd run by Irving. UNC countered with a 12-play, 44-yard drive capped off by Andre Greene Jr’s 6-yd touchdown catch after George Pettaway’s 56-yard kickoff return provided great field position. 

Irving gave the Ducks the lead once again after a dazzling 66-yard touchdown run which included a nice cut-back away from the defenders in the middle of the field. The Tar Heels answered again, this time marching down the field for a 10-play, 75-yard drive and scoring on tight end Bryson Nesbit’s 14-yard catch. 

The Ducks looked to take a lead into halftime, but an interception by Power Echols at the UNC 11 after the ball kicked off a foot twice and into his hands before touching the ground flipped the script. Echols returned the interception 40 yards to the Oregon 49 with 35 seconds remaining in the half. 

Maye only needed one play to connect with Kobe Paysour for his third touchdown pass of the half, and a 21-14 led into intermission. 

Each team missed a field goal in the first half. Lewis missed from 46 yards out, only his second miss of the season. UNC’s Noah Burnette missed from 34 yards out, his fifth miss inside of 40 this season. 

After the teams traded punts to start the second half, the Ducks drove to the UNC 27, but an incomplete pass by Nix to Cota on 4th and 7 turned it over on downs.

The next Ducks’ drive started from their own one, and Tar Heels’ linebacker Cedric Gray stuffed running back Noah Whittington on a 3rd and 1 run to force a punt from the Ducks’ end zone. However, an illegal substitution penalty on the Tar Heels gave the Ducks a new set of downs at the end of the third quarter, but they were unable to pick up another first down. 

After a short punt and nice return, UNC started at the Oregon 43. Facing a 4th and 3, the Tar Heels decided against a 53-yard field goal. Instead, Maye found Nesbit for 16 yards and a first down. Three plays later, Maye tried to run it in the end zone on 3rd and Goal but was stopped short by Casey Rogers at the two. 

Credit: Don De Mars/EVT

The ball was fumbled and recovered by the Ducks, but replays clearly showed Maye’s elbow hit the ground before the ball came loose. Burnette’s 19-yard field goal gave the Tar Heels a ten-point lead with 9:13 remaining in the game. 

“We made three out of three 4th downs,” said coach Brown. “Should we have gone for it (from the two)? Probably should have because we made them all. I was a little hesitant because (Maye) was on his head … if I could do it over, I would obviously go for it.”

The Ducks stormed back, going 61 yards on five plays and scoring on a 6-yd touchdown pass from Nix to Troy Franklin to cut the lead to three with 6:58 remaining. 

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The Tar Heels took more than four minutes off the clock and doubled their lead to six on a 44-yard field goal by Burnette. A crucial 4th and 1 quarterback sneak conversion by Maye kept the drive alive before the field goal.  

The Tar Heels won the time-of-possession battle by six minutes primarily due to five drives of at least ten plays, including four that ended in scores.

UNC linebacker Cedric Gray, who led all Power 5 defenders in tackles this season, was tied with teammate Marcus Allen for a team-high eight tackles. 

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