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For three quarters, nothing about Syracuse’s 31-6 season-opening loss was predictable. The expected high-scoring blowout didn’t happen, as both teams struggled to move the ball and stayed within one score.
Then, the fourth quarter began, and UNC scored 21 unanswered points. SU’s offense sputtered for four consecutive three-and-outs, leaving its defense out to dry.
Neither team played well. Both showed signs of rust and of a disjointed offseason, including two punt return touchdowns called back, dropped passes, missed tackles and a missed Andre Szmyt chip shot.
Here are three takeaways from SU’s 31-6 defeat to UNC:
Tony White dialing up the defense
After every play, the defense looked over to defensive coordinator Tony White. The schemes varied almost every play, and UNC could hardly decipher them.
Preseason All-American safety Andre Cisco added to his FBS-leading 14 interceptions by reading quarterback Sam Howell’s eyes on a vertical route down the seam in the second half. Ifeatu Melifonwu set the tone early by recovering on a deep route on a play Howell extended with his feet and doing so again with a solid open field tackle.
Redshirt freshman Garrett Williams played well, despite matching up against bigger receiver Beau Corrales. Williams finished with a team-high nine total tackles and showed proficiency in tackling, a key for the defensive-back heavy 3-3-5.
SU also put pressure on Howell. To hold UNC to a field goal late in the third quarter, Kingsley Jonathan moved quickly to win his matchup and blindside sack Howell on third down in the redzone. Syracuse recorded two sacks and several more pressures in total.
But by late in the fourth quarter, Syracuse’s defense was fatigued, and UNC took advantage. Four consecutive three-and-outs had the defense on the field for what felt like forever, and the Tar Heels extended their lead with a trio of touchdown drives.
It’s not DeVito’s fault
While Tommy DeVito is partly responsible for the points Syracuse left on the table, he’s wasn’t the main problem with SU’s offense in Saturday’s loss.
Even with minimal protection, DeVito protected the ball, scrambled when he had to and made enough accurate throws downfield. His receivers just didn’t make plays, and the offensive line rarely gave him time to let plays develop.
When DeVito had a clean pocket, he made accurate throws. In the redzone in the second quarter, he found a wide-open Sharod Johnson on a corner route, but his touch pass fell right through the redshirt junior’s arms.
On a two-minute drill to end the half, DeVito scampered out of the pocket on a 3rd and 9 to extend the drive and threw two perfect balls deep down the sideline to Taj Harris. The first, where Harris was held but no penalty was called, led Harris half a step out of bounds. The second went through his hands.
DeVito also extended Syracuse’s field goal drive by running for a first down on 3rd and 11, though he didn’t see an open Aaron Hackett in the end zone on third and goal minutes later.
Earlier in the week when asked about his unproven receiving corps, DeVito said, “everybody can catch the football.” At least on Saturday, he was wrong.
Struggling running backs
On the first drive of the game, UNC’s running back Javonte Williams started to the right of Howell, crossed in front of him and took linebacker Geoff Cantin-Arku’s legs out. If he hadn’t been there, Cantin-Arku would’ve had an easy blindside block.
Syracuse’s running backs didn’t make enough of those plays. Second string back Markenzy Pierre just barely grazed star linebacker Chazz Surratt on a blitz up the A-gap on second down. Surratt brought down DeVito for a 10-yard loss, effectively eliminating Syracuse’s comeback chances.
Pierre and Jawhar Jordan also struggled in the running game, totaling 38 yards. DeVito, who struggled to extend plays with his feet last year, led SU in rushing (30 yards).
SU needs any help it can get in pass protection. Pierre and Jordan, now key players after Abdul Adams and Jarveon Howard opted out of the season, didn’t provide much help on Saturday.
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