Syracuse’s narrow victory over North Carolina last week left us with a lot to unpack. For example, who is the starting quarterback now? Kind of a big deal, no? In a less eventful week, more people would be talking about Ifeatu Melifonwu. The redshirt freshman cornerback’s number was called after Christopher Fredrick exited with an injury early in the second quarter. Let’s turn to the film to see how well Melifonwu filled the role.
UNC quarterback Nathan Elliot attacked the inexperienced defensive back immediately. At first, it worked.
On this 23 yard completion to Antione Green, Melifonwu turns over the wrong shoulder to look for the ball. He never finds it, and Green makes the play. Melifonwu was beatable in the second quarter. It seemed the Tar Heels would have a go-to defensive back to target for the second half. And they tried.
Tommy DeVito had just thrown an interception with under a minute to go in a tied game. North Carolina was less than ten yards out of field goal range. So the Heels went to a quick curl route attacking one-on-one coverage on the outside.
Melifonwu stayed right with Anthony Ratliff-Williams on the route, and broke to the ball quickly. But he still could’ve been boxed out by the 6’1″ receiver. Instead, the three-star recruit showed surgical precision in reaching his right hand around Ratliff-Williams to break up the pass cleanly.
On the very next play, Elliot tries for the Ratliff-Williams again, this time on a streak up the sideline.
Melifonwu couldn’t be more on top of this route. He never lets Ratliff-Williams get past him. Melifonwu impedes the receivers path to the ball, but because he turns for the ball so early, it’s legal incidental contact. This attempt at a dagger by the Tar Heels never had a shot thanks to perfect play by the cornerback.
Third time is the charm? It’s right back to the same matchup on 4th down.
Show me a nicer looking pass breakup. I dare you. Ratliff-Williams, again, doesn’t get open on the play. But Elliot puts this ball exactly where he wants it. It was the kind of throw that can even beat good coverage. Only this wasn’t good coverage, it was great coverage.
Because of Melifonwu’s stellar play, UNC couldn’t put together a game-winning drive before regulation. On to overtime we go.
On SU’s first defensive play of overtime, Melifonwu shows off another layer to his game. He’s shot out of a cannon and punishes Jordon Brown in the backfield. The athleticism jumps off the screen on this play.
Despite losing five yards their opening snap, the UNC offense put up a touchdown in the first overtime. Elliot decides to test Melifonwu again in the second overtime.
The redshirt freshman smothers Ratliff-Williams’ post route. What’s especially impressive about this play is how long Melifonwu had to stay with the receiver, as Elliott enjoyed a clean pocket. This was the last bit of heroism the defensive back needed. North Carolina settled for a field goal on this series and Syracuse scored the game-winning touchdown thereafter.
The performance in relief of Fredrick by Melifonwu can only be described as miraculous. Time and time again, the Tar Heels looked to expose the redshirt freshman in big situations and they were repeatedly shut down.
Melifonwu deserves to see the field more after this. Fredrick has been a rock solid cover corner for the Orange this season, so he should start when healthy. But Scoop Bradshaw has struggled on the opposite sideline. Head Coach Dino Babers should think long and hard about giving Melifonwu a chance to start over Bradshaw.