Syracuse finished 10-1 down the stretch in 2001, but must replace 13 starters and 24 lettermen, including nine offensive starters. The Orangemen struggled in the thin air of Provo, mustering only 326 yards of offense while surrendering 615 yards on defense.
It will be an interesting match up for the two teams, as they appear to match experience against experience on one side of the ball, and inexperience against inexperience on the other.
As already noted, only two Syracuse starters return from 2001. Junior R.J. Anderson (6-1, 233) is now 11-3 as a starter, and is on the Davey O'Brien Award Watch list. Anderson's strong point is decision-making. He set a Big East record last year for interception to pass attempt ratio. Anderson is said to have a strong arm, and he was the second leading rusher with 440 yards (gross).
"The (Syracuse) quarterback can throw the ball downtown, he can escape, and if you don't keep up with coverage, he's going to make big plays," North Carolina head coach John Bunting said Tuesday.
He will be joined by the other 2001 returning starter, junior Johnnie Morant (6-5, 221), who had 20 catches last year and an impressive 25.1 yards per catch. On the other side, senior David Tyree (6-2, 198) will get the starting job, and though not officially listed as a starter, he had eight starts last season. "They like to throw it a lot," Bunting said. "They have talent. They have fast wide receivers."
Tight end Lenny Cusumano (6-2, 254) is a junior also getting his first chance as a starter.
In the running game, true frosh Damien Rhodes (6-1, 193) had an impressive outing at Brigham Young, rushing for 82 yards, the most ever by a true freshman at Syracuse. "He's a player we have to be aware of when he's in the game," Bunting said.
Rhodes plays behind starter Walter Reyes (5-10, 200), a sophomore seeing his first extensive playing time.
The offensive line may have been hit the hardest by graduation. Before the BYU game, all five starters totaled 26 career starts, 24 of them by junior center Nick Romeo (6-2, 297). Two sophomores, left tackle Adam Terry (6-8, 287) and right guard Matt Tarulo (6-6, 303) made their first starts ever at Brigham Young. Junior right tackle Kevin Sampson (6-4, 300) and senior Erik Kaloyanides (6-4, 310) both started a game each in the 2000 season. Despite their relative inexperience, this group paved the way for a 4.7 yards per carry average at BYU.
The youthful Syracuse offense will be matched up against an equally inexperienced Tar Heel defense, which became even less experienced when senior defensive tackle Eric Davis suffered a season-ending injury last Saturday.
"We are going to learn a lot more about this defense this week," Bunting said. "Syracuse is going to present multiple formations, multiple shifts and motions, but when they are in their so-called regular personnel -- two backs, one tight end, two wides -- they like to pound the ball."
The Syracuse offense likes to do a lot of different things, give a lot of different looks, and even throw some option into the mix.
The Syracuse defense is lead by senior linebacker Clifton Smith (6-3, 263), a preseason Playboy All-American. Smith had 13 tackles last week versus BYU and is closing in on the Syracuse record for tackles for loss by a linebacker. Smith is joined by juniors Rich Scanlon (6-2, 236) and Jameel Dumas (6-2, 220) at the linebacker spots. Both Dumas and Scanlon started five games a year ago, so the linebacker corps has talent and experience.
There is also experience on the defensive line, as junior Josh Thomas (6-7, 270) returns at defensive end, and was joined by defensive tackle Christian Ferrara (6-4, 297), but Ferrrara was injured at BYU. Newcomers on the defensive line are defensive end Julian Pollard (6-5, 249), a red shirt freshman, and junior defensive tackle Louis Gachelin (6-2, 284).
The Syracuse secondary also blends veterans with first-time starters, as left corner Latroy Oliver (5-9, 188) and strong safety Keeon Walker (5-10, 201), both seniors, return as starters. Walker started 10 games as a sophomore. Will Hunter (5-11, 182) is in graduate school, and will start this year at right corner. O'Neill Scott (6-1, 187), is a sophomore that played last year as a true freshman.
The North Carolina offense returns seven starters from a year ago, including five of its top seven offensive linemen from last season. In the Miami of Ohio game, however, their performance upset Bunting. "I was disappointed in the offensive line (against Miami of Ohio)," he said. "I challenged them during the week, and I challenged them on game day to come through, and they did not. Individually, I think they are much improved. I saw that during the course of training camp, but then we got out there in the game, and we did not play as well as we need to play for us to be a winning football team."
Pasqualoni was equally displeased with the play of his defense against BYU. "The thing I was a little bit frustrated with was that I thought we could've done a better job of getting in position to make good tackles," he said. "At times, we were out of position. It's very hard when you're out of position and off-balance and the ball is on the way against kids who are athletic and skilled. To give yourself a chance to execute those fundamentals, you have to be where you need to be and then make the play."
Syracuse is coached by Paul Pasqualoni, who has a record of 125-57-1 as a head coach, going 91-40-1 at Syracuse. Pasqualoni is beginning his twelfth year as head coach of the Orangemen.
In theory, these teams mirror each other in that both teams returned good numbers on one side of the ball (seven offensive starters for North Carolina, six defensive starters for Syracuse) and lots of new faces on the other (three defensive starters for North Carolina, three offensive starters for Syracuse).
The irony is that the experienced offense at North Carolina turned the ball over nine times in its opener against Miami of Ohio, and the relatively experienced Syracuse defense gave up 615 yards on defense to Brigham Young.
Saturday night should see improved play from both teams. North Carolina won't turn the ball over as much (it won't be difficult to turn the ball over less than nine times!), and the Syracuse defense will have worked some kinks out since last week.
Though both offenses are fairly multiple – both like running players in and out of the game and using different wide receiver sets to create mismatches -- (and with Syracuse adding the option wrinkle) this game will be decided in the trenches, as both teams will seek to establish a running game.
For North Carolina to come away with the win, the offensive line will have to step up to the challenge issued by Bunting, and the front seven of the Tar Heels will have to limit the effectiveness of Reyes and Rhodes in the Syracuse running game.
The game promises to be a high-scoring affair, and the team that gets the ball last may well wind up as the winner.