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Position Grades: Syracuse 40, UNC 37 (2OT)

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I think we all know where most of the blame for this loss resides.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

On the field, the Tar Heels may have just played their best game, at least until the last 5 minutes of the fourth quarter and both overtime periods. It didn’t result in anything, however, as UNC lost another heartbreaker, this one to Syracuse, in another winnable game. So what did we see, on the field and off? Read along to find out:

Quarterback: B-

I’ve made my feelings on Nathan Elliott clear enough on this here website. At this point, it’s evident, and has been for over a month, to anybody watching that he has serious limitations as a quarterback, which we’ve been over enough to not have to re-hash here. At some point, it’s just piling on a guy. Larry Fedora isn’t completely blind to them, either; Elliott’s job has been simplified, over the course of the season, to the point where any throw he makes past 5 yards beyond the line of scrimmage is a luxury. Significantly more than half of the passing game, if not more than half the offense as a whole, consists of flips, swings, screens, and short curls. Even then, as I explored a couple of weeks ago, Elliott’s accuracy, timing, and footwork leave a lot to be desired. But credit where it’s due: Elliott had his best game yet as a Tar Heel against Syracuse’s solid pass defense, even with the above caveats. We’re grading on a curve, and he still doesn’t display the traits I think he needs to be a Power 5 quarterback. But in the role he’s been asked to play, 34/52 for 321 yards and two touchdowns, while remaining turnover-free and taking just one sack, is a good performance. Particularly so, given that the run game wasn’t working too well (more on this below). It wasn’t great, though. Besides a 55-yard scamper by Dazz Newsome off a flip pass behind the line, he completed just one pass that went for over 20 yards, YAC included. I don’t have the #NextGenStats, but I don’t think too many of those traveled over 10 yards in the air. In summation, Elliott did what he was asked to do, and nothing more. It wasn’t enough.

Running Backs: C

Syracuse came into this game with a run defense known for being pretty leaky. They clearly emphasized it during their bye last week, as none of UNC’s running backs could get anything going for most of the game until Antonio Williams started to figure out the defense late, scooting for a 55-yard run and a 12-yard touchdown on two different drives. Michael Carter had 10 rushes for 24 yards, and Jordon Brown had 7 for 16, including a 15-yarder and a miscue that went for negative 10. Williams had a banner day, as he was active and effective in the passing game as well, catching 6 balls for 38 yards as a consistent chain-mover. Carter, meanwhile, cooled off massively after having been red-hot for UNC, adding a fumble to his forgettable day. Fortunately, it didn’t bury the Heels like it might have, but Carter’s ball security, like with several Heels before him, is starting to become worrying. He’s got a former Tar Heel great on his side, though:

Wide Receivers: B+

When you’re receiving from a guy like Nathan Elliott, basically only throwing passes a 40-year old dad on Thanksgiving would be ashamed to be relying on, and elevate him to the statline that he had, you’re going to get praise here. The standout on the day was Dazz Newsome, who aside from his special teams heroics burned the Syracuse defense for 90 yards on 7 receptions, nearly all of those created after the catch, and a touchdown on a reverse that technically counts as a reception because the ball moved about a foot forward in the air. Anthony Ratliff-Williams continued his solid but not-as-spectacular-as-we’d-hoped season with 9 catches for 79 yards, Dyami Brown and Antoine Green had a couple of nifty catches apiece, and Beau Corrales had three catches, including a touchdown in overtime to stave off Syracuse’s comeback for one more period. Just don’t let him throw: Corrales had a play designed to pass the ball to Carl Tucker from the sideline, and threw up a jump pass that was about 10 yards short and was picked off. Ratliff-Williams, the former quarterback, had a chance to avenge the receivers’ room with a pass to Carl Tucker from the wildcat, but the pass was low and dropped. But compared to their exploits with their hands and feet, those are quibbles. The UNC receivers had a very good day. As an aside, Antoine Green went down during the game with a nasty-looking lower leg injury and his season is almost certainly done. We hope Green is able to make a full recovery.

Offensive Line: C+

A run game that had averaged nearly 6 yards per carry against several better run defenses than this Syracuse one went for just 4.4 yards per tote yesterday. That’s a colossal failure on the part of the offensive line, which could have made this a much easier game if they had taken advantage of what should have been taken advantage of. The Heels’ inability to run the ball for most of the game contributed to the 20 unanswered points Syracuse scored to make the score 20-7; had the Heels been able to muster any offense in that time, we’d be talking about a W. The line did continue their steadiness in the passing game; they allowed just one sack and a handful of pressures that looked even worse than they were due to Elliott being far too quick to throw off his back foot, and this steadiness was what allowed UNC to score 20 unanswered right back, mostly through the air, and once that attack was established, through Williams on the ground. Some bad, some good from the line.

Defensive Line: B-

They were helped by some very good efforts from the back end both in coverage and on blitzes, but the line was able to heat up Eric Dungey and one of the quickest-tempo offenses in the country into easily Dungey’s worst performance of the year: 17/33 for 225 yards and no scores, and 15 carries for just 42 yards and a touchdown. He pulled a couple of Houdini acts, as he’s wont to due, but he was clearly uncomfortable all day long. Unlike the rest of the defensive effort, this performance was mostly maintained when Syracuse switched quarterbacks, as Tommy DeVito was pressured quite a few times in his quarter-plus of play. Syracuse quarterbacks were sacked five times, including twice by Tyler Powell. Forcing Sterling Hofrichter to punt 8 times is a real testament to the line’s performance; the Orange punter had not yet reached that mark this season against several better teams than UNC. Unfortunately, the line did get fairly dominated in the run game, as Syracuse’s 2 primary running backs combined to take 12 carries for 93 yards. That’s enough to bring this grade down to what amounts to “better than acceptable, but not by much.”

Linebackers: B-

Let’s start with the good: UNC’s linebackers are improving steadily in pass coverage. Jonathan Smith had a couple of nice plays in pass coverage; neither went down as a PBU but he definitely made plays on the ball that caused incompletions. Cole Holcomb had 9 tackles and sniffed out a couple of screens. John Papuchis dialed up more than a few screens that nearly got to the quarterback even more than UNC ended up doing, and the linebackers were a big part of that. Unfortunately, all that goodness essentially went out the window with the quarterback switch, as the middle of the defense looked all but lost after DeVito started taking snaps. The linebackers didn’t specifically allow any big plays because of this, but the general disorganization that I saw falls squarely on them. Well, them and the sidelines, but this section isn’t about them.

Secondary: B

There were some outstanding individual plays from the secondary. Myles Dorn, Patrice Rene, and Trey Morrison all stood out positively: Dorn led the team with 14 tackles, frequently playing in the box; Rene had a fine pass breakup early and a brilliant interception late that should have all but ended the game right then and there, and Morrison was in guys’ pockets all game except for a deep touchdown where there was nothing he could do. Again, though, the lack of adjustment to the QB change was this group’s downfall. Dungey has been noted for his timing and precision, and that was defended brilliantly. The secondary had seemingly no answer, however, for DeVito’s arm talent, as balls started whizzing by them and the playmaking, except for Rene’s interception that was completely due to winning a mental battle, dried up completely and ended up costing the Heels the game. DeVito picked apart the secondary completely in overtime after having gauged them in regular time, and the failure to adjust is a big mark against.

Special Teams: C

There was some very good and some very bad with the special teams, all averaging out to average. The good: Dazz Newsome had a 75-yard punt return for a touchdown to give UNC a glimmer of hope in the second half. Kick and punt coverage was excellent, holding Syracuse to 14 yards per kick return and just one punt return for negative yardage. The bad: Freeman Jones missed two field goals, one on a bad snap. Hunter Lent, who has had an incredible season, shanked a punt for just 10 yards and gave Syracuse points. Special teams gave and took away in about equal measure, and I think this grade reflects that.

Coaching: D

Some of my colleagues here think this grade should be lower. I have a tough time arguing that, but let’s start with the positives that make this grade not an outright failing one:

1) John Papuchis called a legitimately great defensive game, at least until Tommy DeVito came in and the defense looked completely unprepared. He contained Dungey through the air and on the ground, called blitzes liberally but not so much that Dungey could get used to them, and switched between man and zone enough to keep the quarterback off-balance. Giving up 40 points looks bad, but keep in mind that 13 of those points were in overtime, which shouldn’t count the same as regular time, and also that Syracuse has scored fewer than 30 points just once this season: against Clemson. 27 points before overtime is not a bad defensive performance.

2) The team responded to being punched in the mouth with 20 straight Syracuse points to hold them off and score 20 of their own in a row. That’s a good job by the staff of making their guys stay with the game.

Now, the rest. The first failure is, as alluded to above, believing that Elliott can win you a game while knowing that your entire gameplan for him is passes behind the line of scrimmage with the occasional prayer. Jace Ruder got rave reviews in spring practice, and while I understand that he’s going to need some time to adjust from a high-school option offense to an ACC spread offense, he at least offers upside. Is Fedora trying to preserve his redshirt? Is that really more important to him than his job, or this season, at this point?

Secondly, we get to the actual game at hand... and it’s not pretty. A significant portion of the offense in the second half was motioning into fake swing passes, which worked a couple of times and then proceeded to be obvious enough to fool exactly nobody, stagnating the offense after 27 points. The swing offense had worked, and yet the coaches went away from it in favor of trickery that went nowhere. And then we get to the end of the game, in particular, where essentially everything that should not have happened, happened. UNC was in position, with just more than 2 minutes left, to ice the game away with just one first down. Antonio Williams ran for 5 yards. Then, everything went awry. Elliott confusingly kept the ball for a yard, then the aforementioned wildcat throw fell incomplete. Syracuse scored 3 plays later. The Heels were unable to do anything on the next drive; Elliott threw to Williams for another 5 yard gain before throwing to him, tightly covered, again on 2nd down and then throwing to absolutely nobody on 3rd. Rene came up with a brilliant interception, though, to set the Heels up on the Syracuse 40-yard line with nearly a minute left. Instead of setting up a game-winning field goal, though, Elliott took 2 shots at the end zone, both nowhere close to complete, and then took a QB draw back to the line of scrimmage, before a Hail Mary to close out the fourth quarter. Fedora’s soundbite on this series is particularly maddening: “We were trying to try to decide what we wanted to do and I opted to go for it.”

That’s what we in the business call a nothing-burger. Or, alternatively, not having a plan. As a head coach, not knowing what to do, let alone when the answer is apparently obvious, should be considered a cardinal sin. In my opinion, that answer alone is fireable. It is what it is, though. This loss sits completely on the sidelines.