A quick take on Syracuse’s maddening 31-6 loss against No. 18 North Carolina Saturday afternoon, at a crowd-less Kenan Stadium in Chapel Hill, N.C.:
WHAT HAPPENED: Dino Babers became the first Syracuse coach since Paul Pasqualoni in 1995 to begin his fifth season at the Orange helm, and the result was a frustrating conference defeat. Coming in as 23-point underdogs, SU had plenty of chances to keep the game close or hold the lead into the third quarter, before the Heels pulled away with three touchdowns in the fourth quarter. It marked the first time since 2013 (Penn State) that SU started a season with a defeat. Trailing 7-3 at halftime and receiving the second half kickoff, the Syracuse offense could not capitalize on any momentum, only mustering a field goal over the final 30 minutes. As per a change in NCAA and ACC rules, instead of their surnames, multiple ‘Cuse players wore the word “EQUALITY” on the back of the jerseys to show support for social justice reform.
ANALYSIS: With new coordinators on both sides of the ball, Tony White’s 3-3-5 defense stood out keeping UNC off balance most of the game until the unit was worn down in the second half. The bright spots were two turnovers coming via Mikel Jones and Andre Cisco interceptions (Cisco is the NCAA active leader with 13 picks). On the other hand, Sterlin Gilbert’s offense grappled to keep drives intact, and reminiscent of too many plays last season, quarterback Tommy Devito struggled connecting with open receivers, and running for his life as pass protection broke down. Syracuse was just 4-of-19 on third downs, finally providing the Tar Heels too many offensive opportunities in the second half to seal the game away.
HERO: In a game devoid of many standout individual performances, North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell was steady enough to lead the Tar Heels to 441-yards in total offense before getting the day off with eight minutes to play. Howell finished 25-for-34 in the air for 295-yards and a touchdown pass despite his two early interception throws. Flashy UNC running back Michael Carter had 78-yards on the ground, averaging 11-yards per carry.
ZERO: There were too many missed scoring opportunities for the Orange. Nykeim Johnson’s 83 yard punt return for a touchdown was called back on an illegal block penalty in the first quarter, then just before halftime, the reliable Andre Szmyt missed a 29-yard field goal when he was 34-of-35 on career field goals inside the 40-yard line. The old bugaboo of too many penalties has already carried over to 2020 with the Orange whistled for eight flags, several at crucial junctures in the game, which continues to expose a lack of team discipline.
WHAT’S NEXT: Syracuse stays on the road for the second straight game next Saturday, September 19, facing longtime rival Pittsburgh at Heinz Field. This is the current longest series against any SU opponent – totaling 75 games dating back to 1916. The Panthers have won five of the last six meetings, including 27-20 in the Dome last season. Pitt (0-0) faced Austin Peay at home later Saturday afternoon. Game Time: 12:00 p.m. ET / TV: ACC Network.