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UNC NOTEBOOK

Tar Heels exorcise (Blue) Devils in thriller

By Jason Staples Special to the Times
Posted 10/28/19

The football gods are rarely this overtly karmic, but the ending of Saturday’s 20–17 North Carolina win against Duke represented poetic justice for the Tar Heels star who sealed the …

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UNC NOTEBOOK

Tar Heels exorcise (Blue) Devils in thriller

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Posted

The football gods are rarely this overtly karmic, but the ending of Saturday’s 20–17 North Carolina win against Duke represented poetic justice for the Tar Heels star who sealed the win.

In 2017, with North Carolina driving against a Duke defense trying to preserve a slim 20–17 lead, then-quarterback Chazz Surratt elevated to throw an ill-advised jump pass that was intercepted and returned for a game-sealing Blue Devils touchdown. 

It took two years for Surratt to finally be able to exorcise those devils, as this time it was UNC clinging to a 20–17 lead with only 18 seconds left when now-linebacker Surratt intercepted a jump pass from Duke running back Deon Jackson to snatch victory from what was looking like yet another heartbreaking last-second loss for the Tar Heels.

A jubilant Surratt credited defensive coordinator Jay Bateman for predicting the trick play in the previous timeout. 

“Coach Bateman said to expect the pop pass,” Surratt explained, “so that’s what we did.” 

Given Duke’s lack of timeouts, it made sense to expect a pass, but Duke had last used a version of that play in 2017 against Georgia Tech, underscoring just how prescient Bateman’s guess was in that situation.

That extra anticipation allowed safety D.J. Ford to knife into the backfield and get a hit on Jackson, which prevented the running back from being able to get enough on the football to throw it out of the end zone. Surratt did the rest, and the Victory Bell now resides in Chapel Hill for the first time in four years.

DEFENSIVE IRONMEN

As for Surratt, the interception caps off an amazing three-game stretch in which the former quarterback has also accounted for 41 tackles (23 solo), 3.5 tackles for loss, and two sacks. Surratt was one of five UNC defenders — including fellow linebackers Jeremiah Gemmel and Dominique Ross — who played all 83 snaps against Duke. 

Ross was the first Tar Heel since 2011 to record a sack, force a fumble, and intercept a pass. Defensive lineman Jason Strowbridge became the first Carolina player to record 10 tackles, 2.5 TFLs, and 1.5 sacks since 2010. 

Strowbridge played 81 snaps, an incredible total for an interior lineman. Only 12 Carolina defenders logged more than 11 snaps against the Blue Devils — this on the, ahem, heels of doing the same thing in the longest game in conference history last week.

Starting defensive tackles Aaron Crawford and Strowbridge have logged 157 and 158 snaps in the last two weeks, respectively, and are second (Crawford) and sixth (Strowbridge) among ACC interior defensive linemen in snaps played.

To put the load Crawford and Strowbridge have shouldered in better perspective, Clemson’s Tyler Davis leads the Tigers’ interior linemen with 31.75 snaps per game (254 total). Crawford (59.25) and Strowbridge (57.9) have nearly doubled that, a fact that both highlights their great effort and the lack of depth Carolina has on its defensive roster. In spite of that workload, Carolina still managed to hold a good Duke rushing offense to 2.7 yards per rush and forced five sacks and three turnovers.

CORNERBACK CONCERNS

Speaking of a lack of depth, Carolina has nearly run out of cornerbacks on its roster, as freshman Storm Duck — who was starting because Patrice Rene and Trey Morrison are already out — was lost to an upper body injury sustained on the first play of the game against Duke. 

Duck was replaced by redshirt freshman DeAndre Hollins, who was frequently targeted by the Blue Devils but held his own. Carolina expects to get a few returnees from injury soon, and the secondary in particular desperately needs the reinforcements. 

HELP IS ON THE WAY

Defensive help is on the way in the 2020 recruiting class, which already includes six blue-chip defenders, and it looks like even more talent is about to jump on board. Shortly after last week’s commitment from top-five defensive lineman Des Evans (Lee County), Charlotte Mallard Creek linebacker Trenton Simpson decommitted from Auburn, with most recruiting pundits now placing UNC firmly in the driver’s seat to earn his signature. The 6-foot-3, 224-pound Simpson is a consensus top-35 player in the nation and would likely be an immediate starter in 2020.

Carolina also flipped 6-2 wide receiver Stephen Gosnell from N.C. State last week. Gosnell joins East Surry High teammate Jefferson Boaz among Carolina’s 2020 pledges.

Saturday’s exciting win over a rival — and a Kenan Stadium atmosphere that hit over 100 decibels on multiple occasions — surely didn’t hurt, as the Tar Heels were hosting 102 recruits for the game, including several of the remaining top targets for the 2020 class.

TOO CLOSE FOR COMFORT

Carolina’s football games should be preceded by a warning for those with heart problems. Seven of UNC’s eight games have been decided by one possession, including five by three or fewer points. If that doesn’t communicate just how thin the margins have been this season, the Tar Heels are 12 points from being undefeated and 10 points from being 1-7. 

Going back to last season, 12 of UNC’s last 14 games have been decided by 10 or fewer points. Last season, the Heels were 1-7 in those games. This season, the Heels are 3-4.

Carolina’s next opponent, Pittsburgh, has played in six one-possession games this season and is 11 points from 7-1 and 24 points from 0-8. In other words, buckle up for another wild ride this week!

VILLANOVA SCRIMMAGE

UNC hosted Villanova for a scrimmage at the Dean Dome on Sunday, giving the two elite programs a chance to assess themselves. The teams played two 20-minute halves, with Villanova winning the first 44-36 and UNC winning the second 43-36. The total score in two situational segments of six and eight minutes apiece was 24-19, with UNC on top.

Cole Anthony led UNC with 28 points, while Armando Bacot (18), Garrison Brooks (14), and Leaky Black (12) rounded out the Tar Heels in double figures. Carolina shot 50.6% from the floor and 9-25 from 3-point range in the full 54 minutes of play and outrebounded Villanova 49-47. 

NUMBERS OF THE WEEK

11-14. UNC is converting on its fourth-down attempts at a 78.6% clip, including conversions on all four attempts through the air in 2020.

6. Tar Heel running back Javonte Williams is sixth in the nation in fourth-quarter rushing yards this season with 257. Williams averages a healthy 6.76 yards per carry in the final frame.

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