Dan Orner kicked three field goals, each better than 50 yards, to keep the Tar Heels in the game and make the victory possible.
“The guy that kept us in the game was obviously Danny Orner,” North Carolina head coach John Bunting said following the win.
Orner got the game ball, tied an NCAA record for three field goals over 50 yards in one game, broke the UNC record for the longest field goal in school history, and also set the record for the longest field goal by a Syracuse opponent.
Not bad for a guy kicking his first field goals in his collegiate career.
“I didn’t think we were even going to go for the field goal,” Orner said, “So I just kind of ran in there and didn’t have a chance to think about it.”
During warm-ups, special teams coordinator Jim Fleming let Bunting know that Orner was kicking them from the 35-yard line, so Bunting decided to make the attempts from that distance.
The Tar Heels (1-1) scored first in the contest on a 52-yard field goal by Orner. The field goal came after Defonte Coleman intercepted a R.J. Anderson pass on the first Syracuse series. The Tar Heels took a 10-0 lead when Willie Parker scored on a 49-yard romp which featured a crushing block by Chesley Borders to get the last man who had a chance at Parker.
Syracuse (0-2) scored with 9:24 left in the second period on a one-yard run by Walter Reyes to bring the Orangemen to within three points after a 14-play, 84-yard drive. On the ensuing drive, Darian Durant fumbled the ball on a scramble and Syracuse recovered on UNC’s 14-yard line. Wasting no time, Syracuse scored a touchdown on the next play, a reverse to Johnnie Morant, and after the extra point, went up 14-10 with 8:16 left in the first half.
On what became a sign of things to come, the Tar Heels drove 62 yards in twelve plays, and closed to within one point on a 51-yard field goal by at the end of the first half. Though only trailing by one at halftime, the Heels had a five-minute deficit in time of possession in the first half, and had difficulty stopping the running game of Syracuse, lead by Walter Reyes and Damien Rhodes.
On the opening drive of the second, the Tar Heel offense again stalled, this time on the 37-yard line. Orner then set a UNC school record with a 55-yard field goal to give North Carolina the lead, 16-14.
Syracuse looked impressive when they scored a touchdown on their next possession, a 56-yard drive, and converted a two-point play to retake the lead, 22-16.
The Tar Heels answered with a 7-play, 87-yard drive for a touchdown with 11:25 remaining in the fourth quarter, capped by a 48-yard pass from Darian Durant to Jawarski Pollock for his first career touchdown catch.
Momentum, and time of possession, began to swing in favoring of the visitors. The North Carolina defense held the Orangemen to a three-and-out, and gave the ball back to the offense.
“That was the first time in a long time we had a three and out,” Bunting said, “That was key.”
In their next possession, the Tar Heels drove 77-yards in 14 plays, marked by four third down conversions on passes from Darian Durant to Zach Hilton for 11 yards, Sam Aiken for 22 yards and a quarterback draw for 12 yards. North Carolina reached the end zone on a Durant to Bobby Blizzard touchdown pass of 12 yards.
“Third down conversions were huge for us in the fourth quarter. We needed our offense to have some ball control and give our defense a rest, and that’s what happened,” Bunting said.
Bunting had praise for his quarterback, Darian Durant, who recorded his first win as a starter at North Carolina. “Coach Pasquoloni came over to me and said, ‘You’ve got yourself quite a quarterback,’ I know that, and I’ve known that for a while.”
Sam Aiken had another big game, catching five passes for 91 yards, including some critical receptions.
“Sam is a big-time receiver,” Durant said. “Big-time receivers step up and make big-time plays and that’s what he did in big-time situations.”
With time of possession greatly favoring the Tar Heels in the second half (22:50 to 7:10 for the Orangemen), Syracuse appeared to wear down in the fourth quarter.
“We just have to give Coach Connors the credit for getting us in tip-top shape,” said running back Willie Parker.
Though there were many contributors to the Tar Heel victory, the entire team credited the Michigan State transfer for keeping their hopes alive during the game.
“He made some unbelievable kicks for us, gave us a lot of points, which wins the game,” Bunting said. “He kept everybody’s spirits up, kept everybody on the sideline active. Incredible effort by that young man, and he is so happy, and the entire team is happy for him, because he has worked so hard.”