Football is back, and although Kenan Stadium was mostly empty (save for a few cardboard cutouts and Roy Williams), Carolina fans around the world were ready to exhale and watch their Tar Heels dominate an overmatched Syracuse team struggling with roster depletion. Except it didn’t really play out the way everyone thought.
The plan was for UNC’s offense, led by Heisman candidate Sam Howell and his full quiver of offensive weapons to lay 40+ points on Syracuse before giving reps to backups Jace Ruder and Jacolby Criswell. An inexperienced defensive line would rely on linebackers Chazz Surratt and Jeremiah Gemmel and a deep, talented secondary to give it a chance to hit Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito. Eventually, Syracuse would wither and die at the hands of Phil Longo’s white-hot offensive scheme, and Carolina would coast for the second half.
Instead, Carolina’s offense, which did score a touchdown on its opening drive, would sputter and stall. Special teams made killer mistake after killer mistake, giving Syracuse gilded edged chances to slide daggers in between Carolina’s ribs. But the UNC defense, with a stout performance from the D-line, proved to be the Alien Tape that kept the team together.
Since UNC students have the option of pass/fail classes during the pandemic, I’m eschewing letter grades in favor of gifs that represent how each position performed. Let’s get to it!
With great expectations come mild disappointments. Sam Howell had a perfectly fine game and did everything he needed to do to get Carolina the win. He moved the team forward, throwing for 295 yards at a 25/34 clip. He likely would have had more than one touchdown toss if Javonte Williams didn’t decide to be so selfish and keep them all to himself on the ground.
But this performance didn’t seem to be a continuation of his breathtaking form at the end of last season, when UNC blew out Mercer, NC State, and Temple on the back of Howell’s hot right hand. The deep ball that he hits Dazz Newsome and Dyami Brown for long touchdowns against single coverage wasn’t there, and some of the touch swing passes were lacking accuracy, something practice and a full summer program likely would have ironed out prior to the start of the regular season. He missed those precise touchdown throws to the back corner of the end zone on two occasions. Three games into the season, those are cash money.
I blamed his first interception on Dyami Brown, who was beaten to a ball by a Syracuse defender draped over his back, leading to a deflection pick. I blamed Sam for his second interception, an ambitious throw with a preseason first-team All-American safety covering over the top. Sam’s good, but he didn’t need to make that gamble. It was a free lesson that should keep him from making that same mistake at a more inopportune moment.
What a luxury it is for Mack Brown to have two capable, proven, explosive ball carriers to accompany a potential best-in-program-history quarterback. Michael Carter had the longer plays and totaled 138 yards rushing/receiving, while Javonte Williams vultured three touchdowns, in addition to gaining 79 yards (14 carries and a single 22-yard reception). A 23-yard catch from Carter led to Javonte’s second touchdown on a 6-yard scamper. It was reminiscent of how former Tar Heel Willie Parker would gain a ton of yards, only for Jerome Bettis to swoop in and grab the touchdown. Michael Carter doesn’t seem to mind, though.
Javonte Williams is my favorite College football player.— Michael Carter (@8kMike) September 12, 2020
Sam Howell did get a lot of joy finding Carter on swing passes for chunks of yardage and first downs. Javonte was running so hard, breaking tackles, and falling forward, that in Tar Heel Blog’s Slack page, whenever editor Brandon Anderson (@THBBrandon) mentioned him, I would respond with Bobby Boucher quotes and gifs. Javonte was a man possessed!
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends:
Let’s go ahead and get the tight ends out of the way. Garrett Walston: one catch, 11 yards, one touchdown. Job well done, but that’s not a lot of eggs for the tight ends. By comparison, the wideouts caught 17 passes for 202 yards. Walston was fortunate to get his touchdown before Javonte took all the scrambled eggs for himself.
Sam Howell wasn’t on target with his deep ball, but he was hitting his receivers on quick slants for chunks of yardage and first downs. Dazz Newsome was unusually quiet, although he did bring his net yardage up 93 yards off of six punt returns, including a nifty 38 yard runback that saw a jump stop followed a burst of speed past several Syracuse defenders.
Dyami Brown was tied with Michael Carter for a team-high six receptions for 94 yards. His 38 yard catch immediately following Dazz Newsome’s 38 yard punt return left Syracuse’s defense dazed and confused and unable to cope with Javonte’s boulder dash on the next play for a touchdown. That touchdown was the final margin of the game, and made the outcome academic with 9:37 left in the fourth quarter.
Beau Corrales was available all over the field and made the type of safety valve catches tight ends normally make. He also added the spectacle of trying to hurdle just about every Syracuse defender on the roster. He never did succeed.
I’d like to point out one area in need of improvement, and that’s downfield blocking. Poor Khafre Brown (little brother of Dyami) was given the task of blocking the right sideline for Josh Downs on a swing pass to the right side. Khafre got his hands up, but with one push from his defender, got put on his behind, and Downs was tackled for a one-yard gain. That’ll get cleaned up as the season progresses.
Before the game started, Mack Brown was concerned with the absence of starter Joshua Ezeudu (out temporarily with a lower body injury). With the team’s emphasis on cross-training positions, Ezeudu was especially valuable because he could play three positions along the line.
No matter, the offensive line got the job done. Not without some hiccups along the way. Much like how I excused Sam Howell’s precision on the lack of a normal spring and summer practice cycle, the offensive line can especially be forgiven for a lack of chemistry and timing. Little mistakes like Jordan Tucker literally ripping Stefon Thompson’s helmet off of his head should be eliminated moving forward, as well.
They must get their act together because Sam Howell cannot be allowed to get hit as often as he was against Syracuse. Howell was only sacked twice, but if defensive end Kingsley Jonathan really put his mind to it, he could have killed Sam with his blindside hit in the third quarter on third-and-six. This led to a field goal and a likely uncomfortable night’s sleep for the Tar Heel quarterback.
Syracuse’s 3-3-5 formation was confusing to figure out. Watching it on television, it was difficult to determine where the pressure was coming from, as most of the snaps would have two linebackers standing on the line of scrimmage for a nominal five-man front. Since Syracuse is not a regular conference opponent for Carolina, it was difficult to get in a cadence. By the fourth quarter, this was largely solved, and not by coincidence, Javonte Williams scored all three of his touchdowns in the final stanza.
The biggest question mark at the beginning of the season became an exclamation point. The Tar Heels defensive line was able to limit Syracuse to only 68 yards rushing on 35 attempts. This stat is a bit misleading, as quarterback Tommy DeVito was able to run for several first downs on third and long. The total rushing yards was low thanks to seven total sacks, three of which came from the line. The defensive line usually held a good pocket, but wrangling a mobile quarterback continues to be a bugaboo for the Tar Heels. Thankfully, Bryce Perkins has graduated and can haunt us no more.
Carolina’s defensive line came up with big plays to kill Syracuse drives right after the Orange made plays to set up third and short. In the first quarter, DeVito broke out of the pocket on a third and ten to set up Syracuse with a fourth and one. On the following snap, the Syracuse pocket collapsed under Carolina’s pressure, and linebacker Tomon Fox was able to crush DeVito on the designed QB run.
In the third quarter, DeVito ran for a first down on third and 11, and on the next snap ran for 15 more yards. UNC’s D-line dug in and stuffed the next two runs and then sacked DeVito when he tried to roll right. After a Syracuse punt and a 12-play, field goal UNC drive, the Tar Heel defensive line helped force another three and out. This is when the scoring damn burst, and Carolina put Syracuse to the sword.
Syracuse was short on talent and depth on the offensive line, but this was still an impressive display. With an extremely talented secondary behind them, UNC’s defensive line should have more time to get after the quarterback than last season. Whether or not they turn that time into sacks, quarterback hits, and tackles for loss will go a long way in deciding if Carolina is a real contender or a pretender.
Hardly mentioned on the broadcast, the linebackers were in constant motion cleaning things up. Just as Mack Brown promised, they looked fast. Really fast. Chazz Surratt led all defenders with 9 total tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 2 quarterback hurries, and tied for the most sacks with 2. Jeremiah Gemmel added 5 stops and a sack.
The linebackers were often the weak link in pass coverage. Taj Harris, Syracuse’s leading receiver, couldn’t get anything going on the inside when matched up with Storm Duck, but he was able to find space underneath when matched up with, or rubbed off on a linebacker, Gemmel in two instances. In the second quarter, Harris caught a pass in the middle of the field, and several linebackers failed to wrap him up, and he was able to make a big gain and get out of bounds with 0:46 left on the clock. It’s not fair to expect a linebacker to cover such a slick receiver, so I’m just nitpicking at this point.
Syracuse caught 16 balls for 134 yards and zero touchdowns. They could not complete passes over the top, and they were unable to really stretch or get behind UNC’s secondary, except in one instance where Trey Morrison got stuck in quicksand and Sharod Johnson got behind him for an easy touchdown, only to watch the ball sail right in between his outstretched arms. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
Carolina’s secondary is now a strength of the defense. They were flying around the field, and they can hit. Look at Don Chapman’s play in the first quarter when he swoops in on a swing pass to the right and makes the open field tackle for a three-yard loss.
Storm Duck looks like a top-tier cornerback. He kept Syracuse’s top wideout Taj Harris in his pocket, denying him a touchdown over the middle in the second quarter, and three ten-yard catches along the sidelines. Myles Wolfolk got in on the act, stopping Harris from making a catch on the right sideline.
Iron sharpens iron, and the talented depth of the Rude Boyz under Dre Bly’s watchful eye will help Carolina get turnovers as opponents try to catch up with less time to run the ball. We saw an example of that with Giovanni Biggers interception in the fourth quarter.
Oh goodness. This was not the dream debut that new special teams coach Jovan Dewitt was hoping for. Tar Heel Blog’s Jake Lawrence tweeted this after the first half:
UNC “special” teams this half— Jake Lawrence (@TheRealestRJL) September 12, 2020
1 missed FG
1 muffed punt
1 ‘Cuse punt return (called back)
1 roughing the kicker
Syracuse’s own ineptitude is the only thing saving UNC right now.
The overturned Syracuse punt return for a touchdown was an unnecessary gift from the Orange. Two Carolina gunners whiffed on either side of Nykeim Johnson, and he was off to the races.
In the second half, Dazz Newsome ran a punt return back for a touchdown, but Tony Grimes blocked the Syracuse gunner in the back, negating the run. I chalk that up to youthful exuberance. Grime’s a good egg.
The third phase has to improve. On other days, on other fields, Carolina will eat the fruits of defeat if a worn out defense, on the heels of just forcing the opponent to punt, has to suddenly rush into their own red zone to stop a buoyant offense. These special teams mistakes kill momentum and give teams that have no business hanging with Carolina a chance. Mack Brown will be eager to clean that up.
If you listened to a lot of Carolina football podcasts or talk radio during the week, you’d hear a lot of people saying that Carolina would be foolish not to establish the run and lean into their dynamic duo of Michael Carter and Javonte Williams. That’s not a bad plan, but it wasn’t Phil Longo’s. He was set to establish Sam Howell early, and the Tar Heels suffered for it early on with some inconsistent play on the offensive line.
Penalties (9 for 91 yards) killed drives. Howell racked up yards, but he wasn’t able to get first downs on all of his ten yard passes because of these mistakes. But as surely as a waterfall turns rock into sand, the Tar Heels wore out the Orange and held a patented fourth quarter rally to obliterate Syracuse (and cover the spread!)
Jay Bateman and the Carolina defense held up their end of the bargain, keeping Syracuse from scoring, despite two Sam Howell interceptions, and a fumbled punt from Dazz Newsome. Bateman has depth in the secondary now, and doesn’t have to play a linebacker at nickelback anymore. The defense is faster than last season, and while they missed some tackles that led to big plays, they did not compound their mistakes by letting those become scoring plays.
If the offense clicks the way it did last season, (and the running game is probably already there) then the defense will find themselves in a lot of second halves against teams forced to throw to try and score quickly. UNC’s improved secondary and speed at linebacker will make that task extremely difficult.
Finally, a message from head coach Mack Brown: