UNC-Syracuse: The Good & the Bad

Despite a shaky start holding onto the ball, the North Carolina Tar Heels managed overcome Syracuse, 30-22, on the strength of Dan Orner's leg and a pair of fourth-quarter scoring drives at the Carrier Dome.

Here is a look at the good and the bad of UNC's first victory of the season.

GOOD

Maturation - The Heels grew up during the course of the game. They began a bumbling bunch with no rhythm and seemingly no direction. Confused and clearly out of sync, UNC eventually began to come around, and by the second half, played with a purpose and appeared to execute commands nearly flawlessly. They clearly got the Miami loss out of their system, and did so while in action in a difficult place to play, the Carrier Dome.

John Bunting - Bunting deserves credit on many fronts. He managed to get the Miami loss out of the team's system and got them focused on the Orangemen. His gutsy decision to not start the trio of players (Will Chapman, Jeb Terry and John Lafferty) because they missed a team meal was the right decision. This is his program, and the players need to understand that and live it every day.

Perhaps he should have taken Durant out after the fifth time the ball fell to the ground, but he stayed with the sophomore and it paid off. However, Stephens should have played a couple of series, as was expected. But the coach deserves tremendous credit for staying with it.

Dan Orner - Orner tied an NCAA Division I-A record by booting three field goals of 50-plus yards. He connected for 52, 51 and 55 yards, which is a UNC record. The Michigan State transfer's foot kept the Heels in the game, enabling his mates to put it together and notch the needed victory.

Offensive line - The line grew up Saturday night. They did a fine job improving their recognition of schemes and stunts by Syracuse's defense. They handled blitzes well in the second half and gave Durant plenty of time to engineer the impressive fourth-quarter drives. They also opened up some nice holes right up the gut for Lewis and Parker to gain chunks of yardage.

Defense - The Tar Heels don't stink on defense. An area of concern entering the season, and still one considering the quality of upcoming opponents, this unit has performed well above expectations. And on Saturday, they were excellent. They held Syracuse to just 254 yards, and a paltry 3-9 on third down attempts. UNC blitzed from all directions, having a variety of success. The defensive line is growing up and the linebackers have been surprisingly athletic. Chase Page, Malcolm Stewart – just to name a couple – have performed better than expected.

Darian Durant - Durant had trouble holding onto the ball in the first half, but was sensational in the second. Overall, he completed 19 of 34 passes for 284 yards and a pair of TD tosses. He showed poise, patience and leadership by overcoming the difficult start and putting together the impressive night. Although he still struggles throwing wide and toward the sidelines, he has been sharp over the middle.

Parker & Lewis - Carolina tailbacks Willie Parker and Jacque Lewis combined for 147 yards on 30 carries. Parker had 79 yards on 13 attempts, including a 50-yard scoring jaunt that was very similar to the 77-yard TD run he had against Maryland last year. Lewis ran for 68 yards on 17 carries. Both hit their holes hard and ran low. UNC did a terrific job if running up the gut in the second half.

Tight ends - Zach Hilton caught a career-high three passes for 54 yards and Kentucky transfer Bobby Blizzard grabbed a pair of passes for 14 yards, including a 12-yard touchdown catch. Hilton's catch and run for 25 yards early in the third quarter kept a drive alive that eventually led to Orner's 55-yard field goal, which put the Tar Heels ahead, 16-14. Both players are huge and run nice routes. UNC fans will see them on the field simultaneously more and more.

Sam Aiken - Aiken had another fine outing, catching five passes for 91 yards. He isn't afraid to go over the middle and take the hits that accompany such routes. He can run any pattern and isn't just UNC's possession receiver, but also a big-play man as well. The diving catch that was called back because of an ineligible receiver downfield (Jason Brown) was as gorgeous a play as one will see.

Dexter Reid - Reid had another terrific outing, having a part on 12 tackles, four of which were solos. Perhaps Carolina's smartest player, Reid is off to a sensational start to the campaign. Reid has now been in on 33 tackles in two games.

Third down conversions - Carolina made good on 10 of 19 third down conversions. It had an amazing stretch of eight of nine late in the game, some of which enabled UNC to keep crucial scoring drives alive. Both fourth-quarter touchdown passes came on third down. The Heels also converted their only attempt on fourth down.

Time of possession - Unlike a week earlier -- when UNC had the ball for just 21:43 in the loss to Miami (OH) -- the Tar Heels dominated the T.O.P. Saturday night. UNC had the ball for 35:12 to Syracuse's 24:38, and was in possession for nearly the entire fourth quarter.

Turnovers - UNC gave the ball away just once (Durant's fumble) and did not throw an interception. Similar numbers a week earlier would have likely meant a 30-point win over Miami.

Jeff Connors – The Tar Heels were more lively, energetic and played with more of a spring in their steps in the fourth quarter, which saw them march for TD-scoring drives of 87 and 77 yards to earn the victory. Credit strength and conditioning coach Connors for the team's excellent physical condition. He remains one of Bunting's most crucial assistants.

BAD

Punt returns - The Heels returned a pair of punts for minus one yard, and either called fair catch or let the ball bounce on the other four punts. In the loss to Miami, UNC had five returns for a total of nine yards. Michael Waddell isn't getting much protection, and usually is fending off a would-be tackler as soon as he touches the ball.

Kick coverage - Syracuse returned seven kickoffs for 170 yards, and on their final return, fumbled after a long run that could have been much more. Miami had three returns for 64 yards. Combined, UNC's opponents have returned 10 kickoffs for an average of 23.4 yards. Considering field position issues against Miami and giving Syracuse the ball inside the red zone at the 14 (led to a score), the special teams aren't doing its part. Carolina must clean up this area or a team like Texas (had a punt return for a score last year against the Heels) will run one back.

Durant's hands – UNC fumbled five times in the first 20 minutes of action, but only one was recovered by the Orangemen. Durant was involved in each, and they were all unique. Two were center exchanges, but from two different centers: Brown and Steven Bell. Another was when Durant bobbled a shotgun snap, which appeared fine. Durant also fumbled while trying to escape Syracuse's rush at UNC's own 14 (led to a 'Cuse TD) and gave Madison Hedgecock a poor placement (high) on a handoff, causing the ball to fall to the Carrier Dome floor. Durant did recover, however, and played exceptionally well in the final quarter.

TD response - after UNC took 16-14 lead on Orner's third FG, record 55-yarder, UNC allowed Cuse to march for TD plus 2-point conversion and 22-16 lead. They allowed Miami a long scoring drive after cutting that margin to 20-14 in the fourth quarter a week earlier.

Staying home - UNC did a sound job against Syracuse's numerous sets and option attack. However, the Heels need to learn how to stay at home and show patience. Too many times either a Tar Heel committed too early to the pitch-man or didn't commit at all. They will improve with experience.

Play calling - An improvement over a week ago, one must wonder why UNC attempted so many passes up the sideline, usually the right sideline. This was rarely there and was always well covered by the Orangemen. Plus, Durant has struggled throwing wide in both games. More passes over the middle and screens to UNC's quality tailbacks would have made more sense. But overall, the game plan, although a bit vanilla, was effective.

Mid-field offense - UNC ventured into Syracuse territory nine times and scored a pair of touchdowns and three field goals. But the three field goals were more than 50 yards each, and one of the TD's was for 48 yards, meaning the Heels struggled to move the ball most of the time once inside Syracuse territory. Other than the fourth-quarter TD drives, UNC had just 68 yards of offense inside the 50 -- 24 of which came on its last possession after Syracuse fumbled the kickoff with less than three minutes left.

UP NEXT

Next week the Tar Heels return home and will host Mack Brown and the Texas Longhorns. Brown coached UNC for 10 seasons, and many Carolina fans have not forgiven him for leaving UNC in December of 1997. This is a winnable game for the Heels, but will be a disaster if they don't hang on to the football. Game time is set for 8 p.m., and will be televised by ABC. Expect perhaps the wildest atmosphere ever Among the Pines at Kenan Stadium.


Senior writer Andrew Jones is in his seventh year with Inside Carolina. He hosts a late afternoon radio show on ESPN Radio, WMFD AM630 in Wilmington and can be reached via e-mail at: AndrewJones@AM630.net.

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