Time: 1:30 p.m.
Site: Kenan Stadium (60,000)
Series: UNC leads, 2-1
Coaches: Syracuse – Paul Pasqualoni, 12th season, 91-39-1 .700; UNC – John Bunting, 3rd season, 11-15-0 .423
Last Meeting: UNC 30, Syracuse 22, 2002 at Syracuse, N.Y. – Dan Orner tied an NCAA record by kicking three field goals over 50 yards, and Darian Durant threw a pair of touchdown passes to Bobby Blizzard in the fourth quarter to lead the Tar Heels to a come from behind victory.
Line: Syracuse by 2
During head coach Paul Pasqualoni's tenure, only one non-conference team has beaten the Orangemen in consecutive years – N.C. State beat Syracuse in 1997 and 1998 at home and away. The Tar Heels and the Orangemen share many characteristics and for the most part are equally matched. This one might normally come down to the home field advantage, however in their short series, the road team has always won. This year's Carolina team will need that trend to end Saturday in order to avoid setting a new school record with eight consecutive home losses.
Durant had one of his finest games a year ago in the Carrier Dome and will attempt to burn the Orangemen again this year. He enjoys a deep and experienced offensive line, three viable tailbacks and a stable of young, but talented receivers. Syracuse counters with senior R.J. Anderson, who has been an effective starter in games since his freshman season. But the Orangemen are going to try to establish the run first, and in last year's game between these two teams, Anderson was just 4-of-11 passing for 71 yards. And although he did score on a one-yard rush, he only netted 13 yards on 12 carries. Both quarterbacks are remarkably similar, but Durant is the better passer.
As appeared to be the case in the Spring Game, true freshman Ronnie McGill seems to possess the most potential among the Tar Heel tailbacks. He led the Carolina rushing attack versus Florida State last week and has earned the starting nod this week, though Willie Parker and Jacque Lewis should also see plenty of action. But while UNC is still tinkering with the position, the Orangemen have an established rushing attack led by junior Walter Reyes – a 2003 Doak Walker Award candidate. Reyes averaged 114.6 yards per game at 6.4 yards per carry, and scored 10 touchdowns in 2002. Backup Damien Rhodes is a multi-pronged threat, having racked up 1,268 all-purpose yards as a freshman last year. Running the ball is what Syracuse does best and they do it very well.
Had the UNC receivers not dropped several passes last week, the Carolina offense would have probably been able to score. It was a terribly hot and humid night during the Tar Heels 37-0 loss to the Seminoles, and Syracuse's defensive backs do not possess the level of talent as FSU's. Senior Jamel Riddle is one of the Orangemen's fastest players and led the team last year with 626 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Senior Johnnie Morant is the big-play threat, averaging 13.6 yards per catch in 2002. The Tar Heels' depth and Durant's passing accuracy should give Carolina a decided edge.
The brightest spot for Carolina so far in this young season has been its offensive line. Made up of five returning starters and with a wealth of depth to back it up, this unit has come of age. UNC has one of the nation's best centers in Jason Brown, but so do the Orangemen. In the preseason, The Sporting News ranked Brown at No. 20, and Syracuse senior Nick Romeo No. 7. SU has four returning starters who deserve much of the credit for the Orangemen's success rushing the football. Both groups are the class of their respective teams, and therefore a toss-up.
The Tar Heels' defensive ends and linebackers were undressed last week by the overall speed of the Seminoles' ball carriers. Some slight adjustments have been made, but the Carolina defensive front is in limbo as it waits for a talented group of newcomers to gain experience to go along with its overall athleticism. The Syracuse defensive line includes two All-America candidates in seniors' Louis Gachelin and Christian Ferrara. However, like the Tar Heels, the SU defensive front was much-maligned last year, allowing 171.9 rushing yards per game. The top returning linebacker is senior Rich Scanlon, who moved from outside to middle linebacker this season. While neither group is overly impressive, until the Tar Heels' prove they can stop somebody, Syracuse should have the edge.
UNC boasts what was widely considered to be one of the ACC's best defensive backfields, but did not have an outstanding showing in the opener versus FSU. Derrick Johnson and Cedrick Holt may have had the best games last week, but veterans' Dexter Reid and Michael Waddell lead a talented and deep group of up and coming athletes that should be able to tighten up their coverage on the Orangemen receivers. The question is, how much will they need to help out Carolina's struggling run defense. Steve Gregory, a freshman All-America in 2002, is the lone returning starter in the Syracuse secondary. He had 21 passes defended, including two interceptions and 19 pass breakups, which ranked fourth nationally last season. But the rest of the corners and safeties are unproven and still battling amongst one another for playing time. Numbers and experience give the Tar Heels the upper hand here.
Despite the emphasis that the Tar Heels put on special teams during training camp, the coverage teams were at best ordinary last week and the starting kicker and punter are both in danger of losing their jobs. Neither Waddell nor Jawarski Pollock was able to break free for a substantial return against the Seminoles either. While Syracuse's kicker is average and the punter has yet to kick in a college game, the Orangemen do have a decent return duo in Gregory and Rhodes. Advantage: None
Prediction: UNC 27, Syracuse 24