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UNC Football vs Syracuse: Three Things Learned

Lack of explosive plays. Defensive speed. Special teams problems.

NCAA Football: Sryacuse at North Carolina Pool Photo

UNC opened their 2020 football season yesterday with a 31-6 win over the Syracuse Orange. Admittedly, the flurry of pre and post-game analysis has been a bit overwhelming for me to take in. The only way to fix that is to dive in and keep the party going.

Hey. It’s the COVID era. We don’t know if this season will continue. So, here are three things we learned. As always, we try to pick non-obvious analysis or overly discussed topics from other outlets, but early season contests usually have a decent amount of cross-over. In other words, special teams were pathetic and we could not ignore them. Enjoy!

Lacking Explosion

Part of what makes UNC’s offense so dangerous is the explosive passing game, which opens up huge running lanes. Last season, the Heels were second in the conference in passing plays of 10+ yards (156), 20+ yards (59), 30+ yards (31), and 40+ yards (17). Deep balls from Sam Howell to Dazz Newsome and Dynami Brown were a weekly occurrence, with both receivers eclipsing the 1,000 yard mark.

That explosiveness was missing for most of the afternoon.

The longest pass was a 38 yard catch and run by Brown on the final touchdown drive of the day. That came after Howell escaped a collapsing pocket, threw the ball approximately 15 yards, in the air, and then Brown found space between the second and third level of the defense. Not quite the “explosive” offense many of us expected.

Michael Carter and Javonte Williams each had a reception out of the backfield that exceeded 20 yards. Four more receptions by Brown (1), his brother Khafre (1), and Beau Corrales (2) between 15 and 22 yards showered the field. Not inefficient, but not memorable. Certainly nothing that stretched the field.

Newsome finished with two catches for 25 yards. Brown was more active with six catches for 95 yards, thanks to that previously mentioned 38-yard scamper. Carter also finished with six receptions for 60 yards. While some of us (me) have clamored for more receiving out of the back field, co-leading the team in receptions was unexpected.

The 3-3-5 scheme by new Syracuse defensive coordinator Tony White was enough to cause problems for UNC’s thin offensive line. An unstable pocket allowed five defensive backs to press UNC’s wide receivers in man coverage for most of the afternoon. That combination prevented any success over the top of the defense or deep jump balls. The lack of successful deep throws kept UNC’s rushing attack in check (as did a refusal to commit to the rushing game early in the contest). The Heels recorded 31 yards of 20+ yards last season, but managed just two such runs yesterday.

Defensive Speed

There’s no way to really quantify this with our resources, but anyone who watched the game saw a very different defense from previous years. Aggressive. Gang tackling. Hard hitting. Fewer missed tackles than previous years. For once, the reports out of practice were accurate. This defense is fast. Maybe faster than any Chapel Hill defense in the past 12 years.

Sure, the Syracuse offense is missing a few key pieces. Their offensive line included a converted TE. Their top two returning running backs have reportedly opted out for the season. There is a reason that Syracuse was picked to finish 14th in the ACC.

Even with those caveats, ‘Cuse was held to 2.8 yards per play. They averaged 1.9 yards per rush gaining just 68 yards. Junior quarterback Tommy DeVito was 13-31 for 112 yards, good for . The Orange were the victim of 7 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, 5 pass break ups, and 9 QB hurries. They entered UNC territory five times and only scored six points. Three of those trips started in UNC territory, thanks to turnovers.

Syracuse was bad, but UNC’s defense made them look anemic.

Last year, the UNC defense kept the Heels competitive, but the Heels struggled if the offense wasn’t effective. They both had to be humming to scratch out a close win. That’s not the case this season. This defense will win a few games when the offense has a poor performance. Yesterday was just the first example.

Special Teams

Despite the victory, it’s safe to say that special teams did almost nothing to contribute to the day’s results. Every other special teams play seemingly involved a UNC error.

-A missed field goal off the bar by graduate transfer Grayson Atkins. (Yes, it was a 50 yard attempt, but a miss is a miss)
-A muffed punt by Dazz Newsome, which was recovered by Syracuse.
-A Syracuse punt return involving at least three missed tackles, before the Heels were bailed out by an unnecessary blindside block penalty.
-Roughing the kicker with 1:02 left in the second quarter, that somehow didn’t lead to any Syracuse points, but prevented the Heels from an extra possession.

And that was just the first half! The first 30 minutes of special teams’ play could provide an entire season’s worth of lowlights set to video and background music from the Keystone Cops.

The second half was a mixed bag. Atkins nailed home a 31-yard field goal, and Dazz Newsome put together a few solid returns. Of course, a Newsome touchdown return was called back after a block-in-the-back by freshman Tony Grimes.

Win some, lose some. At least Ben Kiernan didn’t shank any punts?

Ultimately, this was the perfect early season win. A dominating win against a conference opponent, with a long list of things to improve on for the coming weeks.

Bring on UNC-Charlotte!