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UNC football looks to contain strong Syracuse offense in order to maintain undefeated record

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UNC sophomore quarterback Drake Maye (10) prepares to make a pass during the football game against Minnesota on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2023, in Kenan Stadium. UNC beat Minnesota 31-13.

It’s a full circle moment for Mack Brown. The last time the UNC football team was 4-0 in 1997, Brown was at the helm as part of his first stint in Chapel Hill. 

But comfortability is equivalent to complacency for the head coach of 34 years, and a 4-0 start does not guarantee success in the games ahead.

After a bye week, the Tar Heels will host the Syracuse Orange in their second conference matchup. Here are three keys for UNC remaining undefeated: 

Defensive adjustments 

Assistant head coach for defense Gene Chizik, along with his defensive squad, has come a long way since last season. By this point last year UNC had already given up 14 passing touchdowns. So far this year the Tar Heels have conceded just two. 

A crucial piece in North Carolina's previous win over Pittsburgh was in-game defensive adjustments. After giving up 96 rushing yards on the first two drives, the defense was able to regroup to hold the Panthers to 14 rushing yards for the remainder of the game. 

Instead of hitting the panic button – something that seemed to happen often last season – Chizik’s defense settled in, forced turnovers and reversed the momentum of the game. 

“This year, there's a totally different approach,” senior linebacker and UNC’s leading tackler Cedric Gray said. “When something happens, we are coming back to the sidelines, we’re talking about it, we’re figuring out what happened and how we can adjust.”

The ability to calmly make defensive adjustments will be crucial going into the upcoming matchup against the Orange. The Tar Heel defense will continue to rely on veterans like junior defensive back Alijah Huzzie — who had an outstanding week against Pitt with two interceptions, a punt return touchdown and a pass breakup —  as well as junior linebacker Power Echols and Gray as they take on a versatile Syracuse offense. 

Containing the Orange’s big guns

Chizik said he is a connoisseur of the 'art of the pass rush,' which he cited as being essential in containing Syracuse quarterback Garrett Shrader. The 6-foot-4 senior has shown he is the ultimate dual threat, recording 195 rushing yards against Purdue and 268 passing yards the week prior. 

Shrader, a Charlotte native, will return to his home state to take on the Tar Heels. He will rely on big-framed, physical receivers Damien Alford and Umari Hatcher following a season-ending injury to All-ACC tight end Oronde Gadsden II. 

The Tar Heel defense has not been impeccable when it comes to quarterbacks who can scramble. 

Chizik said the D-line will have to communicate with the secondary in order to not leave any rushing lanes open or men uncovered. Or, as Chizik puts it, choosing between having “your eyes poked out or your nose cut off,” in the push and pull between securing coverage in the secondary and suppressing the run. 

“If we can contain [Shrader], we’ll have a really good day defensively,” Gray said. 

The defensive scheme for this week will center around keeping tabs on the Orange's signal-caller and locking down the entire Syracuse offense in order to sway time of possession toward the Tar Heel offense.

Streamlining the offense

Sophomore quarterback Drake Maye and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey will have to contend with Syracuse defensive coordinator Rocky Long’s havoc-style defense. Long is known for his blitz-heavy, 3-3-5 defense that creates man coverage and tends to throw wrinkles in even the most sound offensive schemes. 

According to Lindsey, crucial one-on-one matchups will be on full display this weekend from the offensive line to Maye’s game-time management. An inconsistent O-line — still down Willie Lampkin — will work to streamline the run game, something that has been lackluster since the Tar Heels faced Appalachian State. 

The Tar Heels, after averaging 243.5 rushing yards in their first two games, recorded just 182 in their most recent matchups — 105 yards against Minnesota and then 77 yards on the ground against Pitt. 

“We gotta get this run game going better, which is a process, a daily thing,” center Corey Gaynor said. “(Syracuse) does a lot of stuff to stop us running — like adding eight, nine guys to the box, moving, twisting — but it’s our job to pick it up.”

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The O-line will have to contend with linebacker Marlowe Wax and free safety Alijah Clark, both of whom rank highly in forced fumbles and pass defense. 

“The key for us is to create a plan that our guys can execute at a high level no matter what they see,” Lindsey said. “But then you are always going to be expecting the unexpected with coach Long — he does a great job and we definitely have our hands full this week.”

@gracegnugent

@dthsports | sports@dailytarheel.com