I can’t sugarcoat it; this game hurt. A loss is never going to feel good, but a loss to a rival is going to sting even more, and the way this one was lost is like pouring salt into a wound that was ripped open by a rusty knife.
The final ten minutes will obscure what was a great game in a lot of ways. Despite numerous obstacles, Carolina went into the fourth quarter not only with the lead, but a feeling that they had control. Just like Cal and Louisville, though, that lead evaporated. Carolina is now 1-3, winless at home, and there is now serious doubt about where that next win may come from.
On that bright note, let’s remind ourselves of the good before exploring why things may be pretty dire:
Anthony Ratliff-Williams is the best reciever.
Matt covered this yesterday in the Player of the Game piece. In what was a difficult day passing the ball, Ratliff-Williams shined. He averaged 25 yards a catch, caught a bomb for a touchdown, and stepped up at a time when Carolina needed someone—anyone—to make a play. He’s already proven himself as a kickoff returner, and on Saturday he established himself as the number one target for Surratt.
Carolina’s offense was dead in the water for most of the first half, and most expected the Heels to take a knee after the blocked Duke field goal attempt. Surratt, however, threw his first 35-yard bomb to Ratliff-Williams, who climbed the ladder and brought it down. Most fans thought “OK, get one more quick catch and maybe make a field goal.” Ratliff-Harris, instead, got behind two Duke defenders and Surratt hit him in stride for the TD. He added another 24-yard catch on the fateful drive, but it’s clear who the first option will be for the rest of the year.
Special teams are a real weapon.
Tom Sheldon had to punt eight times on Saturday. Eight. Only two were returned, and while he may have shanked one or two, he also had a picture-perfect kick that went for over 60 yards, and went out of bounds before anyone had a chance to even lay a hand on it. Maybe Sheldon got a little tired as the game went on, but he’s still going to be key for the rest of the season as the offense tries to gain its footing with a young quarterback and a depleted core of receivers.
Give credit to the field goal defense crew as well. Fedora didn’t take any timeouts on that last Duke drive, leading you to believe that if they had cashed it in, they would have been content with taking a knee and resetting at halftime. The unit came up with the huge block, and the subsequent decision to go ahead and try a pass on the turnover paid in immediate dividend. The game completely flipped in those last thirty seconds, and it wouldn’t have happened without the block.
They aren’t perfect by any means, popping off a couple of penalties that hurt field position, but of the three phases, special teams was clearly the best group on the field Saturday.
The defense kept the team in the game
After getting completely walked on against Louisville, the defense employed more of a bend-don’t-break philosophy in this game and gave the offense a chance to take the game. Duke could only muster one touchdown in the red zone despite making four trips there, and were also forced into six punts. Duke’s offense only managed 20 points (we’ll get to the other seven in a second) after scoring 60, 41, and 34 previously.
M.J. Stewart showed why a lot of people had him as a preseason All-ACC pick, continuously frustrating the Devils with a corner blitz and tight coverage that forced Jones to look in a different direction when he wanted to get rid of the ball. Daniel Jones only got 202 yards in the air, and while they did get 186 yards on the ground, the game could have gotten out of hand early if the D hadn’t stiffened and held the Devils to only 10 points in the first half.
Catastrophic plays doom the teams once again
There is, of course, a flip side to the defense. Duke’s first TD came on a drive that was over and done in three plays. Nine-yard run, 38-yard run, 28-yard pass, 7-3 lead. The defense also gave up an inexcusable two fourth downs, one deep in Duke territory that could have really flipped the field, and the other on the go-ahead score. They also, somehow, managed to have two guys cover one receiver and neither one could make a play on a 45-yard pass to set up that score.
On the whole, it was an improvement for this defense versus the first two home games, but they had multiple chances on that final drive to keep hold of the game and they couldn’t do it. Once the lead was flipped back, it put the pressure on an anemic offense that led to perhaps the most catastrophic play of the season.
Chazz Surratt making inexcusable mistakes
The redshirt freshman picked a bad time to remind us all that he’s still trying to grasp what it takes to lead this offense. He’s been playing with fire all season with the 20-yard sacks and the inexplicable passes. Outside of those great passes to Ratliff-Williams and the run for the touchdown, Surratt just didn’t have a good game as the offense had multiple three and outs. It put the defense behind the eight ball all day, and eventually they broke.
More puzzling still is his inability to use either his tight ends or running back as safety values, gaining a few yards to keep the action in front of the chains. Anytime the drive went behind the chains, it was done. Some of this can be attributed to youth and inexperience, plus having to fight for the job in training camp rather than knowing he was the starter going in.
All of that said, there is no excuse for his first interception of the season. It’s a symptom of what Surratt has been fighting all year—the inability to understand when to eat a play and fight for the next down, and this time it ended the game. His desperate heave when he was already going down is something you learn not to do way before college. Yes, the sack would have hurt, but it at least would have been fourth down and if you don’t convert, your D at least has a shot at giving you another chance.
One, or 20, injuries too many
This is way past ridiculous. One of the reasons that Ratliff-Williams is the number one receiver is because there really isn’t anyone left. Austin Proehl? Broken bone in the shoulder, his Tar Heel career is over. Toe Groves? Carted off after missing all of last season with a knee injury. Let’s add to this that three other receivers were out on Saturday, and by the end of the day you had guys playing receiver who hadn’t had one snap at the position. You also had M.J. Stewart fielding punts at the end.
Tyler Powell was also helped off the field with an injury that looked suspiciously like it could be season-ending as well, and so the defense will be down another person. That could be 18 people missing for the trip to Atlanta. To Fedora’s credit, he refused to use injuries as an excuse in the press conference after the game, and in fact took the blame for the loss saying he didn’t give his team the ability to win the game.
The big picture here is that Carolina is down some significant talent for the rest of the season. While you want to be optimistic based on the performance, it’s tough not to wonder if we will look back on Saturday as the moment we all realized this was going to be a full rebuilding season.