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Syracuse vs. North Carolina football preview: Q&A with Tar Heel Blog

“Why’d you bother asking a UNC fan about the Heels when you are a UNC fan?” - some of you.

ACC Championship - Clemson v North Carolina Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The Syracuse Orange are back in action this weekend and look to get back to their winning ways from the comfortable confines of the Carrier Dome. To help that cause, the struggling North Carolina Tar Heels come to town for the first time with both programs members of the ACC (weird).

Since we’re not North Carolina fans (or at least you aren’t), we went ahead and asked one about what to expect in this game. Tar Heel Blog’s Al Hood (who you can follow on Twitter) joins us to talk about UNC. We also provided some responses over there, which you can check out here.

How’s Larry Fedora doing fighting on the front lines of the War On Football (TM)?

Trust me, this summer wasn’t a good one for Fedora and his comments at ACC Media Day made us cringe, especially when the suspensions that you reference later came out. He was on a dicey ledge at the start of the season and the month of August plus the 1-4 start has chopped a lot of that away. That said, when you boiled down what he was saying-our own Brandon Anderson looked at what was going on in the county where UNC resides, and you can see where Fedora was coming from. Three of five high schools in Orange County aren’t fielding football teams this year.

Could Fedora have put this more artfully? Yeah. Is our coach known for nimble articulation of complex issues? No.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Miami Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

UNC’s quarterback situation appears far from settled. Who’s the clubhouse leader, and is that the same player fans would prefer to win the job?

Unfortunately, it’s very settled now. With Cade Fortin’s injury on Saturday, he’s likely out for the year even though Fedora is unlikely to admit it since he wants your team to at least spend time looking at Fortin. Chazz Surratt is also done for the year, although, again, Fedora has not confirmed that. That brings us back to PROCESS! OF! ELIMINATION! Congrats, Natan Elliott, you’re back in charge! The only other one that seriously has a shot is Jace Ruder, who hasn’t stepped on the field yet and Fedora would like to keep on the sidelines until the last four games to keep his redshirt. Jace is a four-star recruit but that he wasn’t picked over Fortin speaks to how raw he likely is. Thus, you’ll get Elliott.

Needless to say, a lot of us have high hopes Kelly Bryant chooses Chapel Hill next year.

Injuries obviously played a key role in last year’s struggles. What’s the key to this year’s? Just the suspensions, or is there more to it?

The suspensions are a sexy thing to talk about but the truth of the matter is the only two people of serious note to be caught up in them were Malik Carney and Tomon Fox. Surratt showed against The U why he probably wasn’t going to be starting anyway.

Surratt is actually part of the answer to the question, though. Ever since Mitch Trubisky (rightly) left after the 2016 season Larry Fedora has yet to get consistent play under center, which is damning considering the play of Marquise Williams and Trubisky. The plan the entire time was for Turbisky to play for his two years after Williams left, giving Elliott/Surratt/somoene a year to learn the system and Trubisky a chance to break in a ton of new talent. Him leaving created a void that Fedora hoped Brandon Harris would fill.

He didn’t.

The fact is, and you allude to this in your next questions, the Tar Heels still have a ton of talent on the offensive side of the ball. I guarantee you coaches would be thrilled with having the likes of Antonio Williams, Jordon Brown, Michael Carter, Toe Groves, Dazz Newson, Jack Condon, and Anthony Ratliff-Williams to move the ball, plus the offensive line we’ve had so far. We just don’t have a quarterback who can throw the ball consistently enough to generate momentum, which is key in the Fedora offense. All of those guys I named, by the way, either weren’t here or never saw the field while Trubisky was here because you had Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard, Mack Hollins, TJ Warren, and Elijah Hood out there at the same time. Thus, you have young guys who press to make plays when the ball finally comes to them, and mistakes become amplified. Saturday against Virginia Tech saw that on full display with the dropped passes and the two huge fumbles.

In short, no one on the roster knows how to win, and last year is still in the back of their minds.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The running back-by-committee approach seems to be working reasonably well so far. Who’s been most impressive, and who will we see primarily (if anyone) against Syracuse on Saturday?

Michael Carter has been insane as only a sophomore, and he absolutely was the reason Carolina was in the game on Saturday, even with his goal line fumble. He’s been good about getting at least one 40+ yard run a game, and Saturday he had two. The thought is that he’ll likely be who you see the most, but it was Williams who was the first back to get the ball Saturday. He had a pretty big fumble, too, but it came on a 10 yard gain, He’s just been snakebitten to an extent since coming over from Ohio State, as he missed the second half of ECU due to the targeting call, and with Carter hurt Brown had to function as the only back, which didn’t help them at all.

The thought is you’ll see those two the most, as Fedora doesn’t like subbing when a back is hot, but close to the goal line you’ll likely see Brown who is the biggest bruiser of the three. Fedora also has a nasty habit of not playing a good back for long stretches of time.

How will North Carolina’s defense keep Orange QB Eric Dungey in check?

The defensive line for Carolina has been strong all year. I know it sounds cliche, but don’t let the scores of the four losses fool you, a lot of those losses had to do with turnovers, especially the game against Miami. The line has been able to consistently get through to quarterbacks this season creating pressure, and it did a phenomenal job of containing Ryan Willis, both in passing and on the ground except a few key plays. I suspect they’ll try to use the same plan with Dungey, but if Dungey gets past the line than anything goes.

Willis’ successes Saturday came when got past the line and the linebackers/secondary had to react, which they didn’t do all that great a job of despite the two picks. The wild card will be if K.J. Sails is healthy. If he is, then he can team with Patrice Rene for coverage and let J.K. Britt play safety more freely which could create problems. It’ll be needed as Malik Carney will likely sit to finally end his suspension.

UNC’s offensive line appears to be a strength so far. What pushes that group’s success?

Health. I’m knocking on about every piece of wood I can right now but last year the OL was one of the biggest areas that kept going down in the injury plague of 2017. William Sweet and Charlie Heck are both experienced juniors, and as everyone on the line has stayed healthy it’s allowed everyone to get reps and no one to be forced to play out of position. Thus, they get rep after rep and the cohesion builds. Seriously, Carolina is a competent quarterback away from being first in the Coastal right now and it is maddening for everyone following the team.

NCAA Football: Florida State at Syracuse Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports

If there’s one non-Dungey Syracuse player that really concerns you heading into this one, who is it?

Probably your leading TFL duo of Alton Robinson and Kendall Coleman. 12 sacks between them and 15 TFL against Nathan Elliott? My guess is the Orange know Carolina is going to have to be a running team now and will be bent on bottling up the area behind the line, and it will be a good test for that OL.

Who’s one unsung Heels player that SU fans should learn more about before the game?

Anthony Ratliff-WIlliams. The sheer lack of any sort of decent quarterback play has really dimmed the talent this kid has at catching and running the ball. There’s a reason that they are starting to run reverses for him, and part of it is he’s a converted quarterback. With Elliott now the man in charge, don’t be surprised if he ends up throwing a pass in this one, and if Carolina is to have any sort of chance he’s likely going to have made some sort of play, running game be damned. It’s also sad that ARW is “unsung” right now because it just speaks to how putrid Carolina’s quarterback play has been.

Prediction time: Who wins this one and how?

There are two paths to take here: Optimism that Carolina still continued to play decent on offense against VT when Fortin went out, or pessimism that Saturday was the last gasp. Most fans are going to choose pessimism, but I’m going to take the track of “Carolina knows their margin of error is gone, and they see every game remaining as winnable.” I think Carolina manages to frustrate Dungey enough to where he forces a play, the offense is able to reward them, and Fedora runs more of the plays you saw in the second half that saw an 80 yard pass play to Condon and Carter/Williams getting 4-5 yards per carry. Carolina also runs one trick play involving ARW that finally works.

I also acknowledge I’m completely on an island on this and even most Carolina fans will choose your Orange. I like optimism right now. Carolina 20, Orange 17.


Thanks again to Al for taking the time here. Be sure to check out Tar Heel Blog for everything UNC, and follow the site on Twitter, too.