No. 14 North Carolina faces the test of slowing a mobile QB in Saturday's visit from Syracuse
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina's defense has shown clear progress from last season. It now gets a test against the kind of mobile quarterback that has punished the 14th-ranked Tar Heels in past years.
UNC hosts Syracuse on Saturday and Orange passer Garrett Shrader, who ran for 195 yards and four touchdowns in a win at Purdue last month. Containing Shrader will be another chance for the Tar Heels (4-0, 1-0 Atlantic Coast Conference) to show defensive growth in Year 2 under coordinator Gene Chizik.
"It's noticeable, it's unbelievable," UNC head coach Mack Brown said of the defensive improvement. "And they can still get better."
Things often looked rough last season, notably when the Tar Heels allowed 40 fourth-quarter points in a shootout win at Appalachian State. That unit allowed 30.8 points and 436.5 yards per game, though it cut that average to 25.8 points in ACC play.
This year, the defense is allowing 22 points and 363 yards per game.
Now comes the test of facing the kind of QB who thrived in UNC's 11 losses in 2020 and 2021 under then-coordinator Jay Bateman. Florida State's Jordan Travis posted 100+ yards and two touchdowns in back-to-back seasons, while Georgia Tech's Jeff Sims ran for 128 yards and three scores in 2021.
In fact, the Tar Heels surrendered at least one rushing score to a QB in seven of those 11 losses.
They were better under Chizik last year, with only one quarterback — Clemson's Cade Klubnik in the ACC title game — running to the end zone in five UNC losses.
"You try to create habits in guys that allow you to function when things aren't necessarily going well all the time," Chizik said. "That's a mindset in a lot of ways. But it also comes with some confidence that everything is going to be OK. ... I think it comes with maturity of a team."
Now they'll face Shrader, who has already run for six touchdowns this season, though he couldn't get loose i n last week's loss to Clemson and managed just 24 yards rushing.
The challenge will be similar for the Orange (4-1, 0-1), who bring one of the ACC's top defenses to face UNC star quarterback Drake Maye.
"Their games are similar," Syracuse coach Dino Babers said. "They're both mobile. they both can throw on the run. They both can sit in the pocket and take shots. And I think they both have an opportunity for NFL careers if both stay healthy."
The Tar Heels are 4-0 for the first time since starting 8-0 in 1997, which was the final year of Brown's first tenure in Chapel Hill before leaving for Texas. It marks UNC's second 4-0 start since 1983.
Syracuse enters the game ranked as the No. 3 scoring offense (38.2) and No. 3 scoring defense (14.8) in the ACC. They also hold the same ranking (18th) in the Bowl Subdivision ranks for both categories.
Both teams have been among the nation's best at moving the chains, and they rank in the top half of the FBS stats in stopping those third-down chances, too. North Carolina is No. 2 nationally with a 57.9% conversion rate, while Syracuse is No. 10 at 51.4%. The Orange is 50th nationally against third down, holding teams to 35.8%. The Tar Heels are close behind at 36.5% to rank 55th.
STEADY AMID SUDDEN CHANGE
Brown said the Tar Heels have faced six "sudden change" scenarios in which their defense was unexpectedly thrown back on the field after a turnover or a blocked punt like in the fourth quarter of last week's win at Pittsburgh. They've surrendered only two field goals after those potentially game-turning plays.
HOME AND AWAY
This is the beginning of a key three-game stretch for both teams based on where they're playing.
This is the first of three straight home ACC games for the Tar Heels, who next host No. 17 Miami and Virginia. But the Orange must play three straight true road games for the first time since 1996 by visiting UNC, No. 5 Florida State and Virginia Tech.