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Game Preview: UNC vs. Syracuse

The Heels travel to the Great White North looking to get back in the win column.

NCAA Football: Syracuse at Clemson Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

This summer, I penned the Syracuse opponent preview column, basically doing everything but throwing my hands in the air and saying, “look, I don’t know.”

For the sake of pretending to have insight, I postulated that Carolina would be catching the Orange at their peak.

Just like 2016, September was “meh”, October called for optimism, and November was dreadful. In fact, Syracuse has just one November win in the past four years.

Unfortunately, Carolina travels to the Great White North when Babers’ teams have historically peaked— mid-to-late October.

That has not quite been the case. The Cuse had a hell of a run in September, starting 4-0 with a blowout win over Florida State, and a near-upset of #3 Clemson.

After the Clemson loss, the team traveled to Pitt the next week and lost another close game, 44-37, but at 4-2, the Cuse are almost assuredly going bowling for the first time under Dino Babers.

The common denominator to the 2016 and ‘17 Cuse teams was falling off the face of the planet in November after an injury to quarterback Eric Dungey. Coming off a bye, the signal-caller is perfectly healthy, which means Syracuse’s range of outcomes goes from “typical Syracuse” to “potentially awesome.”

UNC Offense vs. Syracuse Defense

The Cuse defense has been efficient (34th in marginal efficiency), but has had a tendency to give up the big play, as they sit 106th in Bill Connolly’s explosiveness measure. Playing into Carolina’s hands: they’re more susceptible to the run game.

Coming off a 162-yard performance last week against Virginia Tech, Michael Carter (along with Antonio Williams and Jordon Brown) should indicate whether or not the Heels are holding serve against the Cuse defense.

Junior D-linemen Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman have a combined 15 tackles for loss, leading the Cuse with 8 and 7, respectively. They’re not getting many of those against the run— the team ranks 113th with a 13% stuff rate (plays for no gain or a loss) against the run. They’re 109th against third and short, and reside within the bottom 20% in the nation in pretty much every run stat.

With the presumed loss of Cade Fortin and any real semblance of a threat of a downfield passing game, this means (say it with me now) RUN THE DAMN BALL, OC3!

Carolina needs to maintain a healthy 2:1 run to pass ratio to keep the offense on the field, and the defense off of it, because Syracuse has been pretty good against the pass:

  • 5th in sack rate at 11.7% of pass attempts: Coleman and Robinson have six each (said another way, only three of those aforementioned TFL’s were on runs), and they’ve brought the quarterback down 20 times in six games.
  • They’re 10th overall in passing efficiency, allowing just under 55% completions and in the top 5 in the nation in both third-and-long and third-and-medium efficiency (and, again, 109th against third-and-short). Getting behind the chains is NOT a successful strategy.
  • Freshman Andre Cisco is tied for the ACC lead with 4 interceptions, tying the TEAM output from last season himself. They’ve got nine already this year.

Run, run, and failing that, run again.

Syracuse Offense vs. UNC Defense

By every measure, the Syracuse offense has been perfectly average. 65th in yards per play, 58th in S&P+, 74th in standard downs success rate...but they’re 11th in scoring offense because they’re running 80 plays a game.

Like I said in July, they bludgeon you to death with an almost reckless tempo.

It starts with Dungey, who has completed a tidy 60% of his passes for 1208 yards, 10 scores, and four interceptions. His 7.1 yards per pass attempt aren’t what kills a defense, its his ability to run.

He leads the Cuse rushing attack with 435 rushing yards on 77 attempts, just ahead of North Carolina native Moe Neal’s 405. The zone read game (and quick passing game off of it) is deadly when its working at peak efficiency, and there’s no indication that it’s not clicking.

The Cuse is no more explosive than anyone else, as they sit 53rd in that category. But, if you watched the Clemson game, you know what I’m about to say: they’re REALLY hard to get off the field. They get an astonishing 76% of their first downs on first or second down, and are above average if you DO get them behind the chains.

How does UNC combat this? My armchair coaching says to force the issue— bring pressure, sell out for turnovers, and if you get burned once or twice, so be it. With a lot of their throws coming in the variety of RPO-attached slants, WR screens, and hitches, they’re not looking to gash you deep— they’re looking to make plays and make an 8-play, 75 yard drive feel like one that got to the endzone in three plays. They use all 53 yards of the field horizontally, so safeties are out of the picture over the middle.

The back seven just has to play a complete game. Jamal Custis, Nykiem Johnson, and Sean Riley will get their receptions (68 in six games between the three of them), but only Custis represents a viable big-play threat. Sell out for PBU’s and interceptions, get a few stops, and let the offense do the heavy lifting on the ground.

Coaching, Special Teams, Intangibles

The biggest intangible is perfectly tangible— Dungey is better than anyone Carolina will employ at quarterback on Saturday. Along with a little proof of concept from the 4-0 start and pair of near misses, Syracuse is going to have a strong home-field advantage, a team coming off a bye high on itself, and a coach who sees this as a must-win to reach the 6-win plateau.

Special teams? Carolina has slipped a little, now ranking 30th, per S&P. Syracuse? Let’s try #1.

Carolina...look, we don’t know what to expect. They completely no-showed ECU and Miami, played a good half and a bad one against Cal, and played well against Pitt and Virginia Tech.

It’s hard to rate highly in “coaching” or “intangibles” when you don’t know what team is coming out of the tunnel.

Outlook

This game is winnable, but seems to set up as a perfect summation of the Larry Fedora era: theoretically evenly-matched teams, but one that looks a good bit more prepared.

Syracuse 37, North Carolina 27