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UNC vs. Syracuse: Three Things to Watch

The Tar Heels return to action this Saturday against the Orange.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

What a great week off for the Tar Heels: NC State lost to Louisville, Duke finally took an L thanks to Notre Dame, and Syracuse, UNC’s next opponent, failed to get it done against Clemson. Whether or not it would’ve been better or worse if the Orange won that game is a reasonable debate to have with fellow Carolina fans, but the fact of the matter is that the Heels are now getting a one-loss team at home coming off of their bye week. That should help change their bad history of losing games coming off of a bye, right?

Let’s take a look at three keys to this weekend’s game at Kenan Stadium.

Has Garrett Shrader recovered from Clemson?

Senior quarterback Garrett Shrader was having an OK season up until the game against Clemson. There really wasn’t any number that jumped out at you in an impressive way, but the Orange were winning games, and truly that’s all that mattered. However, the Tigers really put Shrader through it last weekend, and it could be that the Tar Heels now have a blueprint for making his day a living hell.

Shrader completed just 51% of his passes against the Tigers, which was good enough for 176 yards, two touchdowns, and an interception. There are a number of reasons why he played so poorly: some bad drops from his wide receivers, missed throws, and Clemson knocking him on his behind five times. It also doesn’t help that the Orange are missing three of their key receivers, so all and all Shrader is being asked to make something out of nothing, and it was only barely working before last week’s loss.

UNC has an opportunity to take advantage of Shrader’s sub-optimal situation by creating pressure early and often, and hopefully that pressure will force him to make some very bad decisions. Hopefully the Heels are up for the challenge.

What can we expect from Drake Maye?

Maybe it’s just me, but this has felt like a weird season offensively for the Tar Heels. Sure, they’ve scored at least 31 points in each of their four wins, but Drake Maye’s numbers haven’t been anything crazy. In fact, his four interceptions have made him look more human than anybody expected. In the win against Pitt, Maye probably played his cleanest game of the season, though he still only threw for one touchdown. What can we expect this weekend? It’s likely that only Maye and Mack Brown can answer that question.

There really haven’t been many things that Maye has done wrong, but when he has it’s been because he tried to force bad situations. There have absolutely been some unfortunate bounces, but it’s hard to argue that there have been moments of the junior quarterback trying to do too much with too little. It doesn’t help that the offense as a whole has still been getting used to Chip Lindsey’s offense, but that too seems to be going better. We could finally see the Drake Maye we all know and love this weekend, but it really depends on whether or not the bye week was kind to him.

Is Kaimon Rucker back?

Senior linebacker Kaimon Rucker had a monster game against South Carolina to open the season. He finished the game with six solo tackles, two assisted tackles, and two sacks. In the two games that followed, it felt like Rucker had disappeared — he only recorded five total tackles in those games, and failed to record a sack. However, Rucker gave Pitt some issues a couple of weeks ago, and finished the game with 7 total tackles and two sacks.

What could happen this weekend against Syracuse this weekend is anybody’s guess, but Rucker & Co. have a good opportunity to make things really difficult for their quarterback. Garrett Shrader has already been sacked 13 times this season, and ten of those sacks came from the games against Purdue and Clemson alone. Hopefully see get to see Rucker do some damage against a questionable Syracuse offense. Maybe he will even force a fumble or two? A guy can dream.