The battle for the Victory Bell reignites on Saturday evening, when the Duke Blue Devils travel to Chapel Hill. In a recurring theme of ACC opponents, Duke holds a three-game win streak over the Heels. North Carolina will look to rebound from another heartbreaking defeat against Virginia Tech. If they’re successful, they climb back to .500 and stay in the Coastal title race. A loss will flip a once promising season into a desperation spiral.
With that in mind, all eyes should focus on the linebacking duo of Chazz Surratt and Jeremiah Gemmel. I get it, they aren’t sexy picks as players to watch. They don’t flash Dazz Newsome’s speed, display Dyami Brown’s catching ability, or own Sam Howell’s fourth quarter moxie. On Saturday, though, there may not be two more important people on the Heels.
Surratt’s storybook rebranding campaign includes a team-leading 63 tackles on the season. His 7.5 tackles for loss also is tops on the Heels, and his 4.0 sacks is second on the team. Surratt has been both a revelation and a savior to this defense, including a whopping 17 tackles last week against Virginia Tech.
Gemmel, a sophomore, has been equally impressive. He is currently third on the team with 50 tackles and tied for fourth on the team with four tackles for loss. Gemmel has also forced two fumbles, which is 66% of UNC’s total for the year.
Both these players are vital to success, thanks in large part to Duke quarterback Quentin Harris. If there has been one constant weakness in UNC’s defense for the past few seasons (decade?), it has been a quarterback who can gain yards with his feet. Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman (19 carries, 78 yards, 2 TDs), Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence (11 carries, 45 yards, 1 TD), and Virginia Tech’s Quincy Patterson (21 carries, 122 yards, 1 TD) all have continued that trend this season. That doesn’t bode well for the Heels, as Harris is Duke’s leading rusher.
The senior quarterback has 91 carries for 417 yards and five touchdowns. That’s an average of 4.58 ypc and 59.6 yards per game. He’s been just as efficient through the air, completed 61.2% of his passes 1271 yards, 12 touchdowns, and six interceptions. That’s a combined 1,688 yards and 17 touchdowns produced by Harris, by either air or ground.
So why are Gemmel and Surratt so important?
UNC’s depleted secondary only has three interceptions from active players, with one apiece from Don Chapman, Myles Dorn, and DJ Ford. They’ve also only forced two INTs in the past three weeks, after forcing four in the first three games. The thin defensive line has only paved the way for 16 sacks, which puts UNC on track to tally fewer sacks than last season’s season ending total of 32. Simply put, the Heels are going to have to pick between two poisons and hope they can survive.
Gemmel and Surratt can serve as antidote if they can help contain Harris and make him one dimensional.