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UNC Football vs. Syracuse: Q&A with SB Nation’s Syracuse Blog

Returning the favor, John Cassillo of Troy Nunes is an Absolute Magician answers a few questions about the Orange.

Syracuse v Clemson Photo by Mike Comer/Getty Images

Thanks to division play, even though it feels like Syracuse has been in the league for a while now, your North Carolina Tar Heels will play the Orange for the first time since they joined the ACC. That means you may not be very familiar with the opponent this weekend.

On Wednesday, I tried to represent the site as best as I could, and based on the comments I did well until I tried to predict a final score. The lesson, of course, is never read the comments. The site editor over there, John Cassillo, was the one who interviewed me and was good enough to return the favor by answering some questions on Carolina’s opponent this weekend.

NCAA Football: Connecticut at Syracuse Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

So when exactly is your stadium that’s named after a HVAC company getting an HVAC system?

Soon, actually! The never-ending joke will soon disappear, as the Dome (which may or may not still be sponsored by Carrier at that point) will have air conditioning by the time the $118 million renovation project concludes in 2022. There are other features too, we promise. That’s just the one everyone cares about.

After two losses in the last two games, what is the mood like right now?

Immediately afterward? The fan base was in meltdown mode, in part due to over-inflated expectations following a 4-0 start and a close loss at Clemson.

Now, I think we’ve moved past that, toward a more realistic view of the last six games (and the six that came before them). Are we frustrated that we lost two straight one-possession games? Of course. But beating Clemson two years in a row was a tall order, and they should have the talent to beat us nine of out of every 10 times. Pitt’s had our number for almost two decades now for some reason -- especially on the road. I don’t get it, and they probably don’t either.

All of this realism and optimism about what’s remaining goes to hell if we lose to UNC on Saturday, however. You’re going to have to talk a lot of Orange fans off a ledge if that happens (no offense).

The offense is producing at a torrid pace this season, even with the losses, what’s been the key to that success, beyond the obvious?

Dino Babers’ system has taken awhile to perfect, given the injuries suffered since he’s arrived and the team he inherited being built for a much slower offensive scheme. But this season, it looks like things are finally running as they should. Part of that is due to a resurgent run game that’s not entirely dependent on Eric Dungey’s legs. When SU’s running backs can move the ball well between the tackles, you’ll notice Syracuse is far more effective and the tempo takes a lot more out of defenses. That same rushing attack did not function as well for the past two games, which plays some part in the losses.

Having downfield receiving options is another key aspect of this offense. And while we’ve yet to really find consistency there, having a variety of targets in the passing game (versus relying heavily on just two players, as we did last year) makes that part of the offense a bit more deadly just the same. Dungey having a bit more protection up front this year has also helped create better opportunities to pick up larger chunks of yardage through the air.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Can Eric Dungey be stopped?

Certainly. His style of play comes pre-loaded with a stop button: Injuries, which he’s suffered in each of the past three seasons. But beyond getting hurt, solid linebacker play helps keep him in check by preventing him from rolling out of the pocket. He’s far more comfortable throwing on the run so keeping him confined not only stops him from taking off (which he does very well) but disrupts the passing game as well.

Last week, Pitt took away the screen game too, and that created all sorts of issues for the senior who didn’t really have a checkdown receiver to speak of in the second half. He’ll still be able to put up some numbers no matter what you do, but if he’s inefficient in doing so, that’s just as good for UNC.

The Orange Defense, at least by points, does not look like it’s been great this year, is that an accurate read?

Tempo makes simple points-per-game metrics less important, so it’s probably better to look at what the defense has done without that being a factor. Bill Connelly’s S&P+ metrics rank Syracuse’s defense in the top half of the country (57th), on the strength of its line causing quite a bit of havoc with a relentless blitz, and the secondary being far more aggressive and opportunistic in creating turnovers.

That said, the run defense has been poor due to inexperienced linebacker play, and that’s made the blitzing style of the line a bit of a liability against run-focused teams. The last two games have put the team’s struggles stopping the ground game on display in full, with Clemson and Pitt riding workhorse backs to wins. Tar Heels fans are probably getting pretty excited for what their rushing attack can do, and I hate to admit that they should be.

If Carolina is able to contain Dungey, who would need to step up?

If you can contain Dungey, that’s the biggest piece of the puzzle to beat this team, and it renders speedy playmakers like Sean Riley and Nykeim Johnson (both receivers) far less dangerous. That puts the onus on the run game instead, which (as mentioned) has been a dicey proposition. Syracuse uses three different running backs, with the shifty Moe Neal being the most dynamic ball-carrier and getting the majority of the carries. However, Jarveon Howard has shown that he can be a capable power back with some speed as well. Dontae Strickland’s role in the run game has declined a bit, but he’s still a potential breakaway threat.

Who frightens you on Carolina’s offense? What about defense?

Based on everything I’ve mentioned so far, it should be no surprise that the Carolina run game is what’s most concerning on your offense. Michael Carter carved up Virginia Tech’s line last week, and is likely to pick up yards in bunches again against Syracuse -- though we’ll see if the Orange scale back the blitz with a lesser passing threat in this game than the last two. The one potential saving grace for the SU run defense is that neither Carter or Antonio Williams are true power backs, so perhaps it’s a little easier to clog the middle. I’m not getting my hopes up, though.

Defensively, Cole Holcomb is probably your big difference maker, as a linebacker who could potentially keep Dungey in check and could also assist in stopping the run game. Malik Carney will also be a challenge for the O-line. If he can get any consistent penetration, that causes serious problems for Dungey getting through his progressions and having time to identify downfield targets.

Who deserves a bigger spotlight for the Orange than he’s been getting?

Despite the fact that he’s been tied for the national interceptions lead for a month now (with four), it doesn’t seem like Andre Cisco gets enough love for the playmaking ability he’s introduced to this defense. The true freshman safety plays a high-risk, high-reward style and it’s seemingly rubbed off on the rest of the previously under fire defensive backs, too. Chris Fredrick is another name to be aware of. He’s not putting up the gaudy stats Cisco is, but he’s a great cover corner and has gotten better each year he’s been on campus.

NCAA Football: Wagner at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

Stick your neck out there: Who wins and why?

Maybe I’m being naive, but I think Syracuse rights the ship this week and grabs win No. 5. With tight end Ravian Pierce back in action, I think the passing game looks improved from the two losses while Dungey recovers from whatever bumps and bruises he’s been amassing over the course of the season. Defensively, we’re still not going to stop the run well, but it’ll be better than what you’ve seen from us lately, and that’s enough to preserve the win. Give me 38-30 in favor of SU, with the defenses taking center stage in the fourth quarter.

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Thanks for returning the favor, John. You can follow him on Twitter, and check out him and his crew over at Troy Nunes Is An Absolute Magician. In fact, they are on Twitter as well. I’d wish you good luck on Saturday, but who are we kidding?