North Carolina had Syracuse quarterback Eric Dungey figured out.
The defensive line blitzed him often in the second half and forced him into errant throws. Then, they sacked him.
On seven consecutive possessions, Syracuse ran 28 plays and gained 54 yards. And the Tar Heels led 27-20.
So Syracuse coach Dino Babers made an unexpected decision. He turned to his freshman backup quarterback Tommy DeVito, who had thrown 34 passes and one touchdown all season.
The Tar Heels appeared baffled. DeVito threw a 42-yard touchdown pass with 1:39 left in the game to send it to overtime.
The freshman threw two more touchdown passes to help lead the Orange to a 40-37 win in double overtime against the Tar Heels. UNC will play at Virginia next week.
Here are five observations from Saturday’s game:
1. UNC appeared caught off guard by freshman QB
All week, UNC coach Larry Fedora had raved about Dungey and how his play motivates his team. Fedora said if Dungey runs, he’s trying to punish the defender. The Tar Heels prepared well for him. They shut him down in the second half.
But they did not appear prepared for DeVito, who Babers put in late in the fourth quarter. Coming into the game, Devito was 17-34 for 218 yards and one touchdown in four games played.
“I thought it might be a spark,” Babers said.
DeVito tied the game late in the fourth quarter with his 42-yard touchdown pass. And in the overtime periods, he threw two more touchdowns. He finished the game 11-19 for 181 yards and three touchdowns. He also had one interception.
“The guy had a career day, threw the ball really well,” Fedora said. “He made some really great throws. Put the ball right where it had to be. So you have to give him credit.”
Fedora said Syracuse’s game plan didn’t really change. They just threw the ball more than they would have if Dungey had been in.
2. More missed opportunities
The Tar Heels had multiple chances to end the game, and even win it after they had lost the lead.
Senior kicker Freeman Jones missed a 45-yard field goal with 5:16 left to play that would have put the Tar Heels up by 10 points.
A few minutes later, UNC ran a trick play on third-and-four, a pass from Anthony Ratliff Williams to tight end Carl Tucker out of the Wildcat formation. There was 2:17 left in the game. The pass was a little low, but Tucker, who was wide open, got his hands on the ball and dropped it.
A catch there likely would have ended the game too. Syracuse had used up all but one of its timeouts.
After Syracuse had tied the game, and had the ball again to win it, junior cornerback Patrice Rene came up with an interception at the Syracuse 38 with 52 seconds left. A few yards would have put UNC in field goal position to win it. But UNC went five straight plays without gaining a yard.
It was similar to the missed opportunities UNC had against Virginia Tech. UNC fumbled at the goal line with a little more than six minutes left to play against the Hokies. The touchdown would have put UNC up two scores in that game as well.
3. Elliott had arguably his best game
After being benched in favor of freshman quarterback Cade Fortin last week, Elliott came back to play one of his best games of the season. He was 20-25 in the first half for 160 yards and a touchdown.
In the second half, he was 12-23 for 157 yards. He made some big time throws in the first half on third downs. And this was when UNC’s running game was averaging less than two yards per carry. Elliott’s play seemed to give the rest of the team confidence.
And eventually the passing game opened up the running game.
Elliott’s best stat was his zero turnovers. Still the loss hurt.
“It was pretty heartbreaking,” Elliott said. “I feel like we had multiple opportunities that we could have sealed the game. We’ve got to be better in those situations.”
With Fortin out and a lack of options at quarterback, it appears Elliott will start for the rest of the season. If UNC takes care of the football, the offense has shown it can score points.
4. Defense got pressure without Carney
It had been a struggle getting pressure on the quarterback without senior defensive end Malik Carney. But on Saturday, with Carney serving his final game of suspension, UNC still brought the pressure. UNC recorded five sacks on Saturday and forced Dungey into some bad passes.
That’s a good sign for the defense, who will get its best pass rusher back for the rest of the season. That is unless UNC schedules a 12th game. Carney has 5.5 sacks in three games played.
Senior defensive end Tyler Powell had two sacks on Saturday. Junior defensive linemen Jason Strowbridge and Allen Cater had one sack each, and senior linebacker Allen Artis had a sack too.
Senior safety Myles Dorn said he wasn’t surprised with how the defensive line played.
“It’s just a testament to our depth on the D-Line,” he said. “We knew we had that. We knew that they were going to hold it down without (Carney).
5. Patrice Rene has been lights out recently
Rene seems to be gaining confidence. He recorded his second interception of the season, and second of his career on Saturday. He also had a pass breakup. His interception with 52 seconds left in the game at the Syracuse 38 yard line, put the Tar Heels in a position to win the game.
Rene had a big interception against Virginia Tech too. He struggled against East Carolina, but has come on strong recently. What’s hurt UNC though is the loss of junior cornerback K.J. Sails on the other side.
Sails has missed the last two games with an undisclosed injury. He had played well up until that point. If UNC were to somehow get him back, along with Rene’s play, the secondary would be even better.