CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- Without 25 ineligible players, and playing with just seven available offensive linemen, Florida A&M authored an impressive performance before succumbing to North Carolina, 56-24, on Saturday night.
Quarterback Jeremy Moussa was 28-of-38 for 279 yards, 2 touchdowns and 1 interception and kept the Rattlers close in the first half before the depth and skill of the Tar Heels took over in the second.
"I can't speak enough to the character and resolve of this football team," Rattlers coach Willie Simmons said. "This is a special group of guys. We proved we belonged tonight. We opened some eyeballs. I am so honored and overwhelmed to be able to lead this group of men."
Drake Maye, named North Carolina's starter earlier in the week by coach Mack Brown, was 29-of-37 for 294 yards and five touchdowns, spreading the ball around to a deep crop of Tar Heels receivers. Ten different Tar Heels caught passes in the win, led by Josh Downs, who finished with nine receptions for 72 yards and two scores.
Omarion Hampton kept the chains moving for North Carolina as Florida A&M's lack of depth began to show in the second half. He finished with 14 carries for 101 yards and two touchdowns.
Florida A&M arrived with a reduced roster because of unresolved eligibility issues. The list of those absent included linebacker Isaiah Land, who led the Football Championship Subdivision in sacks last year.
In a statement released Friday, Simmons said the team initially decided not to play after learning Thursday night that the offensive linemen were deemed ineligible. But after further discussion Friday, the team ultimately decided to go to North Carolina and play the season opener.
"The players didn't feel comfortable playing under those conditions and they are all understandably frustrated with many of our internal processes in the certification process, so they decided not to play," Simmons' statement said. "After a few more discussions with university leadership, including the president of the university, the players ultimately decided to play the game. I support these young men 100% in whatever they decide and I'm extremely proud of them for advocating for themselves!"
All that said, the Rattlers were within 21-14 until Downs' 2-yard touchdown catch with 5 seconds left in the first half, and quickly responded to a 7-0 deficit in the first quarter with a 17-yard touchdown pass from Moussa to A.J. Davis.
Florida A&M is scheduled to receive a $450,000 guarantee for playing the game, which is part of a celebration of Historically Black Colleges and Universities this week on the UNC campus.
Maye is a redshirt freshman and the younger brother of former Tar Heels basketball standout Luke Maye. He had a couple notable achievements in the win. He's the first North Carolina player to throw five touchdowns in a season opener and the first to connect for five touchdowns in a first career start.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.