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North Carolina shows early rust vs. Syracuse then Tar Heels turn it up


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USA TODAY Sports’ Paul Myerberg breaks down how the College Football Playoff will be different this year.

USA TODAY

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — The hype began during the second half of last December’s Military Bowl, when North Carolina dropped 35 points on Temple in an eventual 55-13 win.

After a regular season defined by several close losses — the Tar Heels played nine games decided by seven or fewer points in coach Mack Brown’s debut — and on the heels of a 41-10 win against North Carolina State to secure postseason eligibility, the bowl win established the Tar Heels as a trendy pick to crack the preseason Amway Coaches Poll.

And so they did: UNC was No. 19 in the preseason and is due to rise in the Amway Coaches Poll as teams from the Big Ten and Pac-12 are removed from the equation. 

The hype will bring expectations. One is that UNC will look the part of a team capable of pushing Clemson and Notre Dame in the ACC. In turn, the Tar Heels are expected to be a factor in the New Year’s Six bowl chase.

At a baseline, the Tar Heels will be expected to handle opponents such as Syracuse, which is included among the bottom-feeders in an ACC loaded with teams pegged to win between five and seven games during an abbreviated regular season.

The first three quarters of Saturday’s 31-6 win against the Orange belied the program’s preseason expectations. Sluggish after an uneven summer and in danger of exhausting a healthy supply of national goodwill, the Tar Heels struggled to show why they’ve been hyped as a major-bowl contender since the close of last season.

“If you heard our meetings tomorrow, you would’ve thought we lost the game,” Brown said.

If the first three quarters raised questions, a 21-point fourth saw the Tar Heels meet the hype. In all, the opener showed the two sides to UNC: the first of a team that may be prematurely pegged for success, and the other of a team with the potential to be just as good as advertised.

“In your first ballgame, you’re normally fixing so many things anyway,” said Brown. “For us, we felt it was probably a great opener for us because there are a lot of things to fix and they can still see we’re going to be pretty good.”

For now, the sloppiness seen during the first three quarters can be attributed to an uneven spring and summer. The coronavirus pandemic largely eliminated spring drills, separated teams until June and then altered how UNC and others conducted preseason camp, dramatically impacting the traditional flow of college football’s offseason.

More teams than not during the opening weeks of the regular season have been unable to capture the timing needed on offense, for example. That issue plagued the Tar Heels, who scored on the game’s opening drive before falling into an extended offensive slump. Drives started well before petering out: 257 of the Tar Heels’ 463 yards of total offense came on first down, on an average of 7.3 yards per play. 

“We probably scored too quickly and thought it was going to be an easy day,” Brown said. “In the second half, we settled down and became the offense we thought we wanted to be coming into the ballgame.”

Beginning with the final drive of the third quarter, which ended with the Tar Heels on the lip of the Syracuse end zone, the UNC offense played to expectations. Ahead 10-6 entering the fourth, the Tar Heels scored on three consecutive drives, each lasting under three minutes. In the span of about five minutes — from 14:37 remaining to 9:37 — the Tar Heels flexed and shook off Syracuse.

This offense is the key to the Tar Heels’ success, even if the defense did most of Saturday’s heavy lifting. UNC held Syracuse to just 202 yards, the fewest allowed against an ACC opponent since 2009, and accounted for seven sacks, the program’s most in a single game since 2013. 

In a more specific sense, the hype surrounding UNC stems in part from the play of sophomore quarterback Sam Howell, whose 38 touchdown passes in 2019 set a new FBS record for a true freshman. Saturday’s win marked the first time he failed to throw at least two touchdowns in a game; he finished with just one, completing 25 of his 34 attempts for 295 yards and two interceptions, the first leading to a Syracuse field goal.

“We really had to come together and settle down. We weren’t playing like ourselves in the first half,” said Howell. “We just have to come together as a team. It’s us causing our own problems.”

It could be worse. Instead of losing to an inferior opponent, which would’ve dropped the Tar Heels out of the Coaches Poll and cast the team as a national pretender, UNC emerged after a furious close with a multiple-score win that serves as the baseline for what comes next — if all goes according to the hype, a season near the top of the ACC that ends with a major bowl.

“Today sets the bar,” said sophomore defensive lineman Tomari Fox. “All of us know that we were not perfect. We would all agree that there were lots of things that we could’ve done better. We’ll just use that as motivation.

“I think our ceiling is absolutely through the roof. You can’t put a cap on us.”

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Adrian Woody
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Contributor At Industry News Blog

Having the apt skills to play with words to put forth various updates and news relating to the field of technology in an interesting way has made Adrian is a contributor in our organization. He is dedicated to writing articles related to all the up-to-the-minute inventions, launches, updates, and much more happening in the world of technology. In his free time, Adrian offers a guest lecture to kids about the latest inventions.

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