The script, if not the result, of UNC’s game Saturday against Syracuse was inches away from being very different than it ended up being, thanks to a huge play on special teams. In a game that was otherwise dominated by the Tar Heels, that makes the third phase of the game by far the most interesting one to grade for this exercise. Without further ado, then, let’s talk a little about it, and also talk about what exactly goes into the team’s most complete win in a while:
Special Teams: B-
So, the big play: What I thought at the time was that the broadcast didn’t give Ben Kiernan enough room for doubt, because he took a while to actually touch the ground out of bounds and advanced his ball-carrying hand at least enough between getting hit and touching out of bounds to make it possible that he reached the line to gain. On rewatch, Kiernan actually loses the ball out of bounds as he gets hit, making him clearly short and making me have slightly more sympathy for Cuse fans who thought they got jobbed, though I maintain that the broadcast didn’t do very well in explaining where the ball should have been spotted beyond just noticing where the hit was. On the other hand, Kiernan clearly got speared in the facemask and should have been given 15 yards and a first down on a penalty anyways, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about the more quotidian of the special teams stuff that happened Saturday. For the second straight game, UNC had a punt blocked, which is pretty worrying. I don’t know if it’s to do with the shield adjusting to the rugby-style rollouts that they have Kiernan doing, which feel new this year, or simply having young and inexperienced special teamers in the shield positions, but that must be a point of emphasis going forwards. Regardless of whether or not he made the first down, it was a phenomenally athletic play by Kiernan to catch the blocked punt on the bounce and on the run. I felt like he could have done the Michael Dickson double-punt because the ball never crossed the line of scrimmage, but obviously his way worked out, and either way, it’s good to know that UNC has a punter who can make something happen if he needs to — though of course the hope is that he doesn’t.
Everything else was fairly routine, which is a nice change from last year’s special teams. UNC didn’t have a kickoff returned as all of Liam Boyd’s kickoffs went for touchbacks. Noah Burnette knocked in all four of his field goals, the first time he’s made that many in a game. While some might say it’s not that impressive to hit 4 field goals 36 yards and in, those are the kicks that Burnette wasn’t consistently hitting last year, and it’s a huge boon to an offense to get inside the 25 and not have to worry about coming away from the drive with no points. Alijah Huzzie returned just one of Syracuse’s 6 punts and got 5 yards out of it, and that’s about all there was to it.
I can’t credit Mack Brown’s staff enough for the way they got their team up for this game. On paper, coming out of a bye week gives a team extra time to heal up, prepare for their opponent, iron out any kinks and disconnects that have been showing up in games, and just get refocused. In practice, this was UNC’s first regular-season win after an open week during Mack Brown 2.0 — even though three of the four previous losses were to obviously superior Notre Dame teams, the bye week has been more of an obstacle than a gift to this point, and it was really great to see the Heels turn that around. And theoretically, the emotional high of something like Tez Walker’s reinstatement is something that can inspire a team to play, well, inspired ball, but there’s a fine line between inspiration and abandon. And for all of the fun that the Heels seemed to be having on the field, it never looked undisciplined or unfocused. It’s a huge credit to the coaches and to the team that those positive emotions were harnessed productively and that they never got bigger than the game itself.
Moving to the nitty gritty, this was probably both Chip Lindsey and Gene Chizik’s best game of the year. Lindsey’s offense was methodical, with every first-half drive netting at least four first downs before Kobe Paysour’s slightly flukey house call in the second half essentially ended the game; but he also stretched the defense, with Maye hitting 8 completions over 15 yards and 5 of those over 20. A reasonably ready diet of explosive plays didn’t stop UNC from having the ball for nearly 15 more minutes than the Orange, and while Time of Possession is a useless stat for measuring how good a team is at football, it is an indicator of how well an offense like Lindsey’s is functioning. A Syracuse defense that ranked 29th in the country in SP+ just had no answer for the Tar Heels... until the red zone. The single blemish on UNC’s offensive performance was scoring touchdowns on just 2 out of 7 red zone trips. Even if we’re generous and shrink that down to 2 out of 5 after removing an end-of-half field goal and a late drive featuring a lot of backups with the game in hand, it’s an ugly mark. I’m not sure what else I can say about UNC’s highest-scoring and obviously offensively successful game also being its worst red-zone one except that maybe Phil Longo got (and continues to get) too much flak around here.
I’ve criticized Chizik in the past for not adjusting to his opponents, but I certainly can’t accuse him of that in this game. With the bye week helping him out, Chizik clearly dared Syracuse to beat him with Garrett Shrader’s arm, emphasizing contain over pressure on pass rushes so as not to turn Shrader — one of the best running quarterbacks in the country — loose, and putting a lot of responsibility on his linebackers to run blitz to stop the Orange’s more traditional run game from getting to work. It couldn’t have worked better: Shrader completed 15/21 of his passes, but they were harmless, netting just 124 yards and an interception. On the ground, he broke one run for 18 yards, and his other 9 attempts went for 10 yards — and that’s with just one sack. Syracuse’s leading rusher, LeQuint Allen, had only 38 yards on 11 rushes, and never got anything going other than on Syracuse’s one successful drive out of halftime. The Orange just couldn’t hurt Chizik’s defense the way they’d been operating so far this season, and combined with the offensive mastery, ended up essentially out of the game within just a few drives.