Syracuse a ‘must win' game?

One local sports radio jockey has already labeled the Syracuse game as a "must-win" for the Tar Heels. That may have been a fair assessment. If Carolina still has hopes of getting to the six-win, bowl-eligible plateau in 2003, then UNC "must win" swing games like Saturday's versus Paul Pasqualoni's Orangemen, especially considering the difficult 2003 schedule it still "must" face.

While Syracuse does not possess a defense near the caliber of Florida State, its strength is on the ground, and features two quality tailbacks running behind an experienced offensive line. And although the UNC coaches are working feverishly this week in practice to stop the bleeding on the perimeter of the defense, one would have to believe that a rushing team like the Orangemen is licking its chops about now.

"Syracuse is a hard-nosed, tough football team on offense," UNC head coach John Bunting said. "They run the ball. And obviously that has been deficient on our defense and we need to get better and we need to get better right away to have a chance to win.

"They are not tricky with personnel, but they have a million formations," he said. "They have a talented quarterback, a talented running back and they have been able to run the ball in the past. I'm sure that will be a big part of their gameplan – big play tailback, athletic quarterback.

"It was a tough season for them last year, and I'm certain that they're out to avenge," Bunting said.

  • Saturday's game is the opener for Syracuse and will be played exactly 365 days after Carolina's 30-22 comeback victory in the Carrier Dome last season. The Orangemen have had loads of time to scout the Tar Heels and to seethe over the last meeting between the two teams.

    "Everybody has 29 practices," Pasqualoni said. "You can debate forever whether it is advantageous to get one game under your belt and play a second game. A lot of people in football believe that the most improvement you see in a season is between game one and game two. We have to hope that isn't true for North Carolina."

    Pasqualoni certainly expects Darian Durant to be a factor. In the 2002 game, Durant was 19-of-34 for 284 yards with no interceptions. He threw two fourth quarter touchdowns to Bobby Blizzard of 45 and 12 yards, to bring the Tar Heels back from a 22-16 deficit. Durant was coming off the game with Miami (Ohio), in which he threw three interceptions and was in on most of the Tar Heels' six fumbles lost.

    "He is a great quarterback," Pasqualoni said. "Nobody really knew last year how good he could be. He obviously led the ACC in all categories. You are going to be hard pressed to find a better quarterback than this guy. He throws the ball with great accuracy and confidence."

    Durant certainly didn't play poorly against FSU last week despite the shutout, but a similar stage as last year is set for the Tar Heels' offense to break out on Saturday.

    "Darian did a fine job last week," Bunting said. "The only thing he needs to do is if he does escape, make sure he makes a good decision where to throw the ball or, if he does run it, make a play. That's the only thing I think he needs to continue to work on. What he needs to do is get his receivers to hang onto the ball."

    While Durant couldn't always count on his receivers to hold onto to his passes against the Seminoles, he was able to enjoy fairly good protection, especially considering that FSU had 10 returning starters on defense. He should get even more time to throw against Syracuse, which will only make his performance better.

    "He didn't need to [improvise]," Bunting said. "For the most part, we had very good protection. He threw on time, he made good decisions and he threw the ball accurately."

  • Excitement is swirling over the expected unveiling of defensive tackle Isaiah "Puff" Thomas. And whether or not his physical condition was the reason he did not make the depth chart prior to the FSU game, not exposing him to the shock and awe of the Seminoles' offense should not slow his progress. Thomas brings size, mobility and youthful exuberance, yet registers a zero when it comes to college game experience.

    But the interior line was not exploited last Saturday, possibly because it didn't need to be. FSU found the going easy enough running and screen passing on the outside. Bunting said fans could expect to see Thomas in on about 20-25 plays this week, in place of Isaac Mooring, who was moved to end.

    "We didn't get much production out of the defensive end position and we've got to get better there this week," Bunting said.

  • Senior kicker Dan Orner surely remembers the Tar Heels' win at Syracuse last year. He stormed onto the scene as a transfer from Michigan State by nailing three field goals of 52, 51 and 55 yards. From that momentum, Orner finished the season 9-of-14 on field goals, including the 47-yard game winner as time expired at Duke.

    But Orner has struggled lately; not just last Saturday, but in training camp as well. It has not helped his confidence either, as Bunting explained.

    "Anytime you hit a bad shot or you don't swing right as a golfer…the same holds true here for a kicker," he said. "I think he's just a little off on his swing plane, but he's working real hard to get that corrected. I think he'll get his confidence back this week."

    In the meantime, senior Topher Roberts has been outstanding in practice – once hitting a 58-yarder in Kenan Stadium against the Carolina defense. While Bunting continues to assert he has not lost his faith in Orner, he also said that should he have problems on Saturday, then Roberts could get the nod.

    "Danny has been a fine kicker for us, and he has provided some consistent kicking for us in the past," Bunting said. "The kid has worked extremely hard, but Topher Roberts is in the background. If things go well, then we're going to stay with Danny. If things don't go well, then I'm ready to make a change – during the game—and Danny understands that we have to put the best players on the field in order to win."

  • Orangemen senior fullback Thump Belton was named the 1998 Southwestern Conference 4-A Player of the Year while at West Charlotte. The N.C. Shrine Bowl member rushed 155 times for 1,327 yards and 18 touchdowns during his senior year in high school. He played one season during a two-year span at Northeast Mississippi Community College, before transferring to Syracuse with three years of eligibility remaining.

    Last season, Belton played in all 12 games at fullback and on special teams. Against the Tar Heels, he had one rush for eight yards.

    "It's exciting," Belton said. "I think last year when we played here, I had 40 people at the game. This year I'll probably have 100 to 150 people at the game."

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