CHAPEL HILL, N.C. –– The word of the week is complacency.
With a 4-0 start to the season and the shortcomings of 2022 still haunting the program, complacency has been at the forefront of this team’s mindset, so much so that they don’t really see themselves as an unbeaten team but rather a team starting from ground zero, 0-4.
“The big thing is we can’t get complacent,” Drake Maye told reporters on Tuesday. “We wanna stay undefeated and have our name at the top of the ranks. We can’t afford to not give our best effort with such a huge home game. It’s just another ACC tone-setter, we set it at Pitt and we gotta do it again this weekend.”
Head coach Mack Brown further emphasized the significance of the Tar Heels historic start, noting that it’s only happened nine times since 1950. But what’s most important to the HOF coach? He doesn’t want his team to get smug after riding high these past couple of weeks.
“I told our coaches to act like we’re 0-4,” said Brown. “The only way you get better is to act like you lost a game. The only thing we’re talking about is not making the mistake of getting comfortable like last year, not looking ahead, not talking about what’s out there for us. We’re looking at getting better everyday and beating Syracuse.”
As the Tar Heels go face-to-face with the Orange this Saturday they must keep that message at the forefront. They will take on a high-powered Syracuse defense led by Marlowe Wax and Justin Barron who boast 25 tackles and 20, respectively. The unit as a whole leads the ACC in sacks with 16 across five games played and ranks third in the ACC in interceptions with six, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Despite these numbers, however, they gave up 31 points in the loss to Clemson. But it’s also important to note that all four touchdowns scored by the Tigers came off Syracuse turnovers. They also gave up too many third and long conversions and had an array of missed opportunities, something they’ve got to clean up before game day.
The Orange’s offense also struggled against the Tigers, scoring just a touchdown apiece in the first and fourth quarters. What was the most disastrous takeaway was the offensive line’s inability to protect their play-caller, Garrett Shrader. They had their worst showing of the season – allowing five sacks, but Shrader isn’t innocent either. He was picked off once and had three forced fumbles in the loss. It was the second
straight year that an interception sealed the loss as Clemson’s Jeremiah Trotter Jr. stole the ball from Shrader and snatched the victory.
Shrader ranks 28th in the NCAA in QBR (72.6%), which can be compared to UNC’s Drake Maye 86% who ranks 11th. Despite his struggles, Shrader still has an arm and his skill set shouldn’t be underestimated.
“He makes plays with his arms just as well as he makes plays with his legs,” Rucker said. “I feel like having the responsibility to contain a scrambler like that does get a little difficult. I just have to be hyper aware. I know he has a tendency to roll out even to his opposite side where he’s not really strong with throwing the ball.”
Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik spoke more on the quarterback’s capabilities saying, “He’s just a big guy. He’s really athletic and moves so well in space and is a hard guy to tackle. Some of it’s off quarterback scrambles. Some of its off designed quarterback runs and some not so that’s the thing. There’s a really good mix in there with how he gains his yards.”
After last weekend’s loss, UNC’s defense must remain steady and prepare for Shrader’s versatility and strength if they want to put the game away.
“If you look at how many third down conversions he’s had when the coverage is good, everything looks exactly the way it ought to look,” Chizik continued. “We’re very aware of what he does as a runner. It’s gonna be a huge challenge for us to be able to make sure that you can keep him in the pocket and minimize how many yards he’s gonna get.”
UNC’s red zone defense has seen an upward curve since last year and they rank 29th into the category.
After the bye, the Tar Heels should feel boosted up as they go into their first ACC showing at home this weekend, but they can’t get caught up in the hype. The fact that they’re undefeated can’t get to their heads, because imagine how it’d feel to watch all their glory come crumbling to pieces.
“We’re chasing improvement,” offensive lineman Corey Gaynor said. “I thought we used the bye week well, we gotta just keep stacking the days.”
Will the Tar Heels get complacent and let the Orange get under their skin? According to coach Brown, he’s determined to not let that happen.
“We’re telling these guys to enjoy the journey,” he said. “Quit looking at the future, enjoy the journey. We’ve got to be 1-0 this week and play our best. It’s really not against Syracuse, it’s against our standard because we don’t know how the other team is gonna play. We think we do but we don’t. So just go play and don’t be satisfied. You can be confident without being comfortable.”
Who: No. 15 North Carolina (4-0) vs. Syracuse (4-1)
When: Saturday, October 7th, 3:30 p.m. ET
Where: Kenan Stadium, Chapel Hill, NC
Last Meeting: UNC, 31-6
All-Time: Series is tied 3-3