CHAPEL HILL – It wasn’t pretty for most of the afternoon, but North Carolina’s offense eventually matched the game-long performance turned in by its defense and the No. 18 Tar Heels pulled away from Syracuse, 31-6, on Saturday at Kenan Stadium.
Carolina led just 10-6 after three quarters, as it was plagued by three turnovers and special teams mistakes, but the offense scored three times in the final period as it improved to 1-0 on the season.
Sam Howell was 25-for-34 with 295 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions, Michael Carter ran for 78 yards while also netting 60 yards receiving and Javonte Williams had three rushing touchdowns for the Tar Heels. The defense allowed just 202 yards, registered seven sacks and forced nine punts.
Here are 5 Takeaways from UNC’s win over the Orange:
Pass Rush Concerns Quelled
Pass rush, pass rush, pass rush – the Tar Heels needing a better pass rush this season was one of the consistent topics since camp opened five weeks ago, and the result Saturday was mission accomplished. Carolina registered seven sacks on the day.
Chazz Surratt and Tomari Fox each had two while Tomon Fox, Ray Vohasek and Jeremiah Gemmel each had one.
The Tar Heels got a solid rush from its interior line allowing the blitzes to work. Surratt got close to Syracuse QB Tommy DeVito several other times, in addition to his sacks, coming from multiple directions. The pressure applied across the board was impressive, a reason DeVito was just 13-for-31 with 112 yards.
“I think the biggest difference in our defense is that we’re two-deep and we have fresh legs,” UNC Coach Mack Brown said following the game. “And that really helps us more than last year. Tomon Fox got really tired last year at times, but there’s a lot of guys out there that can rush the passer now and I thought they did a very, very good job of that today.”
The seven sacks are the most for a UNC team since 2013.
Super Stout D
Carolina’s defense was outstanding from the first snap, and other than a few plays it missed some tackles, the defense owned the Orange. Syracuse managed just 202 total yards, punted nine times and was only 4-for-19 on third downs.
Swarming, sideline-to-sideline fast, and punishing at the line of scrimmage, the Tar Heels were terrific in every aspect of the game. More numbers:
Syracuse averaged 1.9 yards per rushing attempt, aided by UNC’s sacks, of course. But if you remove the seven sacks from the equation, and the Orange averaged 2.8 yards per play.
“I think today sets the bar and all of us know that we were not perfect today,” defensive lineman Tomari Fox said. “If I were to ask them now, we would all agree that there were lots of things we could have done better. We just used that as motivation to come in and give everything we’ve got. I think our ceiling is absolutely through the roof, you can’t put a cap on us. We have a lot of talented guys who are out there.”
The defense was particularly stingy after UNC’s three turnovers. Syracuse started at UNC’s 23 following its first interception but the Heels stopped the Orange on downs. Then following Dazz Newsome’s fumbled punt gave Syracuse the ball at UNC’s 19, the Orange had to settle for a field goal, and it did the same after picking up another interception giving it the ball at Carolina’s 48. That’s 20 offensive plays for 52 yards and just six points.
“I think our defense is really good,” Surratt said. “A lot of people talked about our offense going into the year, so coming into the game, we kind of took a chip on our shoulder going in knowing the kind of guys we’ve got playing on the defensive side of the ball.
“I’m just really glad we played how we’re supposed to play and I think we can be really good on defense. We’ve got a lot of really good guys up front and on the back end. I think the sky’s the limit for our defense.”
It was the fewest points UNC has allowed since a 62-0 win over Idaho in 2012 and its fewest in an ACC game since holding Duke to six points in 2009.
A Sleeker Michael Carter
It was obvious after just a few touches that Michael Carter looks faster, quicker, more explosive and shiftier than a year ago. He darted, danced, and exploded Saturday leaving Syracuse defenders defenseless at times.
Carter ran the ball just seven times but for 78 yards with a long of 45 that helped set up a Carolina touchdown. He also caught six passes for 60 yards with a long of 23. Carter returned two kickoffs for 40 total yards, as well.
He didn’t get into the end zone but twice got the ball to the 2-yard-line, one time catching a pass on the right side of the field before juking, jagging and accelerating his way near the goal line before bring brought down.
Not So Special Teams
While better in the second half, the special teams weren’t sharp at all before the intermission. The parade of mistakes helped keep Syracuse in the game and the Heels stagnating. Among the miscues:
*Dropped punt by Dazz Newsome gave Syracuse the ball Tar Heels’ 21-yard-line leading to a field goal by the Orange.
*Grayson Atkins missed a field goal attempt.
*Syracuse returned a punt for a touchdown that was called back, but it was credited with a 27-yard return before the penalty. The Heels looked out of sorts on the return.
*A penalty on a kickoff return meant the Heels opened one possession on their own 6-yard-line.
*UNC forced a punt on a quick three-and-out on one series but roughed the kicker giving Syracuse a first down and new life.
Things were smoother in the second half, which included a 56-yard punt return by Newsome that set up an UNC touchdown, and punter Ben Kiernan averaged 45.5 yards on four punts with a long of 57 yards.
“The kicking game made so many different mistakes in the first half,” Brown said. “They played much better the second half. There’s some things in our kicking game that can really be powerful and help us this year.”
UNC had just 13 rushing TDs last season, but it had versus the Orange. The Tar Heels didn’t get into the end zone via the run very often when it got into the red zone in 2019, but all three of Javonte Williams’ touchdown runs Saturday were from a total of 13 yards out: Runs of 1, 6 and 6 yards.
The offensive line had its issues on the day, but it got needed push when close to the end zone, which is a positive sign moving forward.