When the fourth quarter rolled around against Syracuse, the consistent performance by the defense and the marked improvement by the offense on Saturday had the Tar Heels feeling good about the eventual 31-6 victory.
However, there is still a lot of work to do for the North Carolina Tar Heels. Outside of the play of the offensive line, the biggest concern is with special teams.
And it is not just one facet of the third phase of the UNC game that needs help. There were errors and mistakes with kicking, punt returns, and punt coverage.
The first play of the second quarter was a 50-yard attempt by graduate transfer Grayson Atkins. This was the first field goal attempt of the season, and it struck the upright.
On the flip side, Atkins nailed his other field goal attempt in the game- a 31-yarder in the third quarter- and hit all four extra point attempts.
First game, first field goal attempt. And do not forget it was from 50 yards and had plenty of length. This is not cause for alarm, but undoubtedly Tar Heel fans had their heads in the hands when the first field goal attempt of the season went bonk.
After that missed field goal, Carolina forced a punt from Syracuse after a lowly five play drive by the Orange.
Dazz Newsome was ready to return the punt. He likes to do so against Syracuse. His only career punt return for a touchdown was against the Orange in 2018.
However, Newsome muffed the catch, and Syracuse recovered with a prime starting position at the Carolina 21 yard line. Fortunately, thanks to the UNC defense, that mistake only cost a field goal.
That type of mistake is one that can change the outcome of a game. Better teams will take advantage with a touchdown, and the Tar Heels simply cannot afford that costly of an error as the season progresses.
Carolina punted four times on Saturday, and if not for an illegal block in the back by Syracuse, one would have resulted in an 83 yard punt return touchdown.
Sure, maybe that block in the back was the difference maker on the return to the end zone (it wasn't), but two waves of UNC defenders had clear opportunities to take down the returner and did not. Simply put, there has to be better coverage from the punt team.
Speaking of penalties, there were two costly flags on special teams against the Tar Heels. On one, Syracuse was punting on a fourth and 16 when Kamari Morales tagged the Orange punter and the roughing the kicker call renewed the drive.
On the other, Tony Grimes’ block in the back negated a Newsome punt return touchdown.
Both of these penalties were committed by freshmen, and is part of the special teams learning process. Head coach Mack Brown spoke directly about penalties in the postgame conference, and this is part of cleaning up the team game after the first game of the season.
As of writing, Carolina is the largest favorite out of all the NCAA football games this week as a 30 point favorite over Charlotte. Sam Howell or Chazz Surratt should not have to be the x-factor that decides the game over this UNC System foe.
The Tar Heels should handle the 49ers. If not, there are bigger issues for this team.
Big upsets rely on key plays in special teams to quickly change possessions, and shift momentum. If it is that type of game Saturday, the UNC special teams will need to execute to stave off a historical upset.
With that being said, it is a good opportunity to work on special teams, especially since there will be a bye week before Boston College on October 3.
If the game goes to plan, UNC should have plenty of looks on punt returns and kickoff coverage. Of course, if the offense has another sluggish start, the field goal and punt units will get some action.
Keep an eye on the special teams. If there is significant improvement over last week, fans will know that the coaching staff is making the necessary adjustments in personnel and scheme.
Nothing can replicate live action, and the Tar Heels need to work out the last of the kinks on special teams before there are nothing but ACC opponents on the schedule.