Sometimes to break a big losing streak and announce things have changed with a program, you need a signature play. Seven years ago the Tar Heels stepped out onto Kenan with navy alternates and the Tar Heel on their helmet. Gio Bernard would have a signature play that ended a five game losing streak to NC State. It was the start of an upswing for the program under new coach Larry Fedora, as Carolina would follow that season by going to four straight bowls and winning the Coastal in 2015.
On Saturday, the Tar Heels once again stepped out on the field against a in-state rival in navy blue alternates and the Tar Heel on the helmet. This time, they had a three game losing streak to Duke. The game was trending toward tragedy, like that NC State game, but then Chazz Surratt made a season-saving interception at the goal line. This was a type of game the Tar Heels recently seemed to not be able to win, including last weekend, but this time things were different.
Let’s take a look back at the good and back from this game with our Winners, Losers, and Honorable Mentions.
Jay Bateman: Going into Saturday, containment of a running quarterback had been one of the biggest issues for this Tar Heel defense. Quentin Harris had made his living running the ball, and if Bateman couldn’t limit his opportunities, it was going to be a long day. The Tar Heels defense did just that, even with a secondary that is comically thin. Harris officially gained -9 yards on the day, suffering five sacks, and was only able to really hurt the Heels with his legs on Duke’s first touchdown of the day. He was able to rack up 229 yards in the air, but forcing Harris into a thrower kept the Tar Heels in the game.
For this alone, he would be a winner, but then the game-winning interception was a master class. Let’s take a quick look:
There were three guys in the way of that jump pass, almost like they were ready for it. As Chazz Surratt would say later, they were. Bateman had the film to show that Duke had run that play multiple times, and when they took the timeout on defense, Bateman said to look for this play. It was so well covered, it’s impossible to see how that pass would have gotten through. At the same time, the runner was still stopped. Surratt gets credit for the pick here, but don't forget DJ Ford having Deon Jackson in his grasp as he was trying to throw. The play was going nowhere, and fortunately Surratt made the catch. This led to peak David Cutcliffe face where you can insert the “Curb Your Enthusiasm” music:
Bateman has been a magician with what he’s done and what he has to work with, and all it does is make you excited about what this defense can become with some players coming back and a strong recruiting class next year.
Chazz Surratt: You know it had to feel good for Surratt to have intercepted a poor jump pass, considering how his quarterbacking career essentially crashed after a similar play back in 2017 against these same Blue Devils. Two years later, he got to pose with the Turnover Belt as his teammates rushed to the Victory Bell. There’s just not enough you can say about the junior as he once again led the team in tackles, got a sack, and had the play read perfectly to make the interception. He’s already done enough to erase his time as a quarterback, but now he’s ensured that his name will be spoken the same way fans do when they say Gio Bernard.
Noah Ruggles: Speaking of reversing your narrative. Ruggles basically lost the game for the Tar Heels last weekend, lost his kicking job, and then was asked to come back in during the second half when his replacement just wasn’t cutting it. He responded by cooly hitting his two kicks, including the game winning 40-yarder. If Ruggles doesn’t make that kick, it’s completely possible Duke plays their final drive differently and just tries for three. Let’s hope this is the start of some stability at that position.
Sam Howell: Howell had his worst day as a Tar Heel, which is saying something when you look at the stat line of 227 yards and two touchdowns. He accomplished that by only completing 10 of 26 pass attempts, and unlike previous games where the misses could be accounted for by drops of the receiving corps, most of these misses were the result of being under pressure and not hitting the player. He also had multiple passes batted, including an ugly interception that was a pick six and gave the Devils the lead in the second half. What was great about this is that Carolina won despite this, and it’ll only help in the maturation process of the freshman who played in only his eighth collegiate game.
Javonte Williams: It’s being harsh against Javonte, sure, because he was the work horse on Saturday and was a big reason Carolina was in a position to seal the game late in the fourth quarter. He also would have been the reason why Carolina would have lost because of his inexplicable reach near the goal line. The Tar Heels had the lead and would have forced Duke to burn their timeouts if he just went down. It was a best case scenario for him that Surratt made the interception, because he can learn without the crushing weight of costing his team a game.
Tar Heels’ Secondary: Seriously, the injuries in the defensive backfield can stop at any time. One of the reasons Harris’ rushing totals were so low is that the Duke quarterback really went to work on the hobbled secondary. You’re going to hear the name Jake Bobo in your sleep because that’s who Deandre Hollins, pressed into service when Storm Duck went out, had to cover. The plan worked well for Duke if only because they were able to pretty easily drive down the field until the pick at the goal line, aided by two DPI’s. Rumors are percolating though that Carolina may finally be getting some players back, and if the Tar Heels want to get those two wins in their last four to become bowl eligible, they will need it.
It’s good to see Antonio Williams looking healthy and getting integrated into the offense. He had some really good runs, and looked strong getting by the line of scrimmage before accelerating in the open field. His freshness will save wear and tear on Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, which is huge at this time of year...Jason Strowbridge is a force when on the field, and played a huge role in why the Duke running game couldn’t get any traction. He got a sack and a half, forced and recovered a fumble, and made fans wonder what would have happened had he played more in the close losses...Jeremiah Gemmel was also a beast with a sack and a half on his own, as the Carolina defensive front was outstanding as a whole.