Saturday, the Tar Heels return to the field after an early bye week, as they look to build on their first 4-0 start in 26 years with a three game home stand. A meeting with the Syracuse Orange will kick things off as the team looks to expel the post-bye week struggles that Mack Brown has had since his return to Chapel Hill.
This Tar Heel team has to feel pretty good about where they are at considering they have won all but one game by double-digits and while not yet playing a complete game. The offense has remained one of best in the country under new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey led by a passing game that has hit its stride. Quarterback Drake Maye hasn’t had the best start to the season because of the turnovers, but he’s still one of the best in the sport at putting his team and taking over games. His pass catching group has improved each and every week and is once again one of the best in the conference. Transfer Nate McCollum has been a reliable option in the slot in the last two games and it has allowed Kobe Paysour to move outside and help the team there with Gavin Blackwell’s struggles. The tight end group remains one of the best in the conference, especially now that John Copenhaver is back at full strength after a hand injury. J.J. Jones’s breakout is the biggest reason, though, that this passing offense has been able to move the football the last three games. In that stretch, Jones has caught 14 passes for 272 yards which easily leads the team. The team also found out on Thursday that Tez Walker will be eligible for the remainder of the season after missing the first four games battling back he NC The running game got off to a great start, but has struggled the last two games because of a lack of push up front. The offensive line has really missed Willie Lampkin the past two games after he dominated the first two. The hope is that he can be ready to go for this game and that it will allow the team to move the ball on the ground better. If the running lanes open up, the Tar Heels have a running back room more than capable of doing damage with Omarion Hampton and British Brooks. The offensive line, even without Lampkin, has been very solid in pass protection thanks to the emergence of Diego Pounds at left tackle and the play they have gotten from Ed Montilus in Lampkin’s absence.
Defensively, the unit has been the average group that we were hoping they could be. The pass defense has made major strides in the last two games thanks to a more aggressive mindset from defensive coordinator Gene Chizik. The defensive backfield is much improved from last
year with guys like Don Chapman and Giovanni Biggers having stepped their play up at safety and Alijah Huzzie and Marcus Allen being much more competitive in coverage than the tandem from a year ago. They’ve gotten help from the pass rush with guys like Kaimon Rucker and Des Evans having career years out of the edge rusher spots. The interior of the defensive line is probably the weakest position group on this defense right now. The unit has struggled to get push up front in the last three games, especially on running downs. If this run defense, which has struggled since the opener, is going to improve, they will need this group to start winning one-on-matchups more often. The linebacking corps is still in great shape with Cedric Gray and Power Echols once again forming one of the best tandems in the entire country.
Special teams wise, the Tar Heels have had a lot of www challenges to navigate. Starting kicker Ryan Coe played the first two games of the season before he suffered a lower body injury that forced Noah Burnette into action. Just this week, it was announced that kick returner George Pettaway will not play the rest of this season, forcing Hampton and Doc Chapman to handle the role the rest of the season. The team’s kick return unit has been awful, ranking third to last in average yards per return allowed. The only real strengths that the unit has at this point is the punt and punt return groups, which look to be in great shape.
The Orange will roll into Chapel Hill off their first loss of the season last weekend to the Clemson Tigers. Offensively, this will be the most complete group that the Tar Heels have seen all season. Quarterback Garrett Shrader has built off of what he did last year and enters the game as one of the most dynamic dual threat quarterbacks in all of college football. He has already run for 340 yards and six touchdowns this season and he is the active FBS leader for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback. He teams with running back LeQuint Allen to form one of the most dangerous quarterback-running back rushing duos in the country. The pass catching group is still a solid one despite the loss of star tight end Oronde Gadsden II. The team has three receivers with over 200 yards receiving already this year and last week was a breakout game for tight end Dan Villari. The offensive line might be a veteran one, but have had issues in pass protection, already having allowed 15.0 sacks.
Defensively, the Orange are off to an outstanding start, but that is likely a reflection of their schedule more than anything. The team’s run defense has been great so far, led by the push of their defensive line. Caleb Okechukwu is the man to watch for off the edge, while Kevon Darton anchors the middle of that unit. The linebacking corps is a solid one led by Marlowe Wax who might be the best player on that side of the ball overall. The pass defense is in good shape thanks to the secondary. Safeties Alijah Clark and Justin Barron have had major impacts in both the run and pass game and cornerback Isaiah Johnson has been really good in coverage so far this year.
The special teams unit is the weakest point of the team. Field goal kicker Brady Denaburg has missed a field goal in two of the last three games and the return game hasn’t been explosive at all to begin the season. Punter Jack Stonehouse is the one strength of this unit because of his big leg.
Off. PPG: 35.8 (T-32nd)
Off. PYPG: 296.8 (20th)
Off. RYPG: 167.3 (57th)
Off. TYPG: 464.0 (24th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 57.9% (2nd)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 21.0 (T-29th)
Sacks Allowed: 9.0 (T-58th)
Def. PPG: 22.0 (T-46th)
Def. PYPG: 238.8 (T-83rd)
Def. RYPG: 124.3 (54th)
Def. TYPG: 363.0 (63rd)
Def. 3rd Down %: 36.5% (57th)
Tackles for A Loss: 26.0 (T-83rd)
Sacks: 12.0 (T-50th)
Interceptions: 5 (T-42nd)
Turnover Margin: +2 (T-36th)
Penalties Per Game: 5.0 (T-34th)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 46.3 (49th)
Off. PPG: 38.2 (17th)
Off. PYPG: 271.8 (40th)
Off. RYPG: 190.6 (37th)
Off. TYPG: 462.4 (25th)
Off. 3rd Down %: 51.4% (10th)
Tackles For A Loss Allowed: 31.0 (T-82nd)
Sacks Allowed: 15.0 (T-109th)
Def. PPG: 14.8 (18th)
Def. PYPG: 200.8 (38th)
Def. RYPG: 96.4 (22nd)
Def. TYPG: 297.2 (T-19th)
Def. 3rd Down %: 35.8% (52nd)
Tackles for Loss: 41.0 (T-8th)
Sacks: 16.0 (T-17th)
Interceptions: 6 (T-23rd)
Turnover Margin: +3 (T-26th)
Penalties Per Game: 8.0 (T-121st)
Penalty Yards Per Game: 78.9 (127th)
Keys to the Game
As Clemson showed last week, this is the best way to slow down this potent Syracuse offense. While Shrader has the capability to win with his arm, his legs are a big part of why this offense is able to move the ball. The Tar Heels will need to be smart when rushing the passer and not give him the lanes to escape because they get too far up field. They will also need to utilize the quarterback spy throughout the day to help eliminate his ability to take off.
Win on Third Down
This has been a big part of the early season success for the Tar Heels has been winning on third down and it will be hugely important again on Saturday. Offensively, the team has been one of the most successful in the country on third down and will have to continue to be in this one unless they can start winning on first and second down more often. Defensively, it is crucial that the team finds a way to get off the field against a Syracuse offense that is also top ten in third down offense.
Get Out to an Early Lead
Last weekend proved that the Orange are not a team that is built to play from behind, so the Tar Heel need to get off to a quick start in this one. If they can repeat what they did against Minnesota and get a two possession lead early, that might be enough to get them in position for another comfortable victory.
OUT- DeAndre Boykins (lower body), Lejond Cavazos (lower body), R.J. Grigsby (lower body), Malaki Hamrick (lower body), Julien Randolph (lower body), Tez Walker (eligibility)
QUEST- Gavin Blackwell (upper body), Ryan Coe (lower body), Willie Lampkin (lower body)
OUT- Oronde Gadsden II (ankle), Isaiah Jones (undisclosed), Steven Mahar Jr. (knee), David Wolhabaugh Jr. (leg)
QUEST- Trebor Pena (undisclosed)
Location: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, NC
Time: 3:30 PM
Radio: Tar Heel Sports Network (check local affiliates)