UNC pulls away from Syracuse in second half

In the season opener for both teams, the Tar Heels shook off a shaky first half to top the Orange

North Carolina coach Mack Brown meets with his team following their victory over Syracuse in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 12, 2020, in Chapel Hill, N.C. (Robert Willett/The News & Observer via AP, Pool)

UNC shook off a slow start to score 24 unanswered second-half points and pull away from Syracuse, 31-6, in the opening game for both teams at Kenan Stadium.

The Tar Heels scored on the first possession of the game and seemed poised to blow out Syracuse early, but sloppy play kept the Orange in it, and Syracuse hit a field goal to cut the UNC lead to one early in the second half.

Sam Howell passed for 295 yards and a touchdown, and Javonte Williams scored three touchdowns to lead Carolina.

Three thoughts

1. There were no fans in Kenan Stadium and a skeleton crew in the press box, creating an eerie atmosphere. “There were 25 tickets, and we gave them to our seniors for their families,” coach Mack Brown said. Still, the environment was far different from a normal game, from chairs scattered at social-distanced locations up and down the sideline, instead of a team bench, to the coach’s speech to the team, which was held on the field instead of in the locker room.

“It’s so weird that there’s absolutely no crowd noise,” Brown said. “Even though you have the music and the noise over the speakers, when you look up there’s absolutely no one. We’re playing without the traditions. All the pageantry we have is gone now. We understand that. It’s the only way you can play.”

2. The lack of spring practice, offseason work and a shortened fall camp was evident as both teams were mistake-prone throughout. The game featured a total of 17 penalties, nine by UNC and eight by Syracuse, for a total of 151 yards. Two returns for scores were nullified by penalties, as well as a long run by UNC.

3. UNC’s defense helped keep Syracuse in check while the offense struggled. Carolina had a total of seven sacks, 11 tackles for loss, nine quarterback hits and an interception.

“The biggest difference in our defense is we’re two deep, and we have fresh legs,” Brown said.

Number to Know

264-88 — UNC’s advantage in total offense yardage in the second half, as the Tar Heels pulled away from the Orange.

They Said It

“Opening games are always crazy anyway and you add the pandemic to it…”

— Mack Brown

Player of the Game

Sam Howell, UNC quarterback — Howell shook off a slow start and avoided panic, eventually finishing with 295 yards on 25-of-34 passing. He only had one touchdown, although long passes from Howell set up all three of running back Williams’ short touchdown runs. He had two interceptions, although one bounced off of a receiver’s hands and into the arms of the defender.

Critical thinking

A penalty call on Brian Anderson wiped out a 41-yard Michael Carter run. An illegal block by Eugene Asanta brought back a Carter touchdown on a kick return. A roughing the kicker penalty by Kamari Morales kept a Syracuse drive alive and resulted in a field goal attempt just before the half.

Carolina also had two other penalties on punts and a personal foul penalty. The Tar Heels will need to clean up their act.