Reliance on big plays hurts UNC in 27-17 loss to Duke


North Carolina safety Donnie Miles (15) and Duke wide receiver T.J. Rahming (3) jaw during Saturday's game.

They just weren’t enough.

Big chunks of yardage were the only reason North Carolina ever had a lead in its 27-17 loss to Duke. But down the stretch, the dependency on the big play was what did UNC in.

“They made more plays than we did,” head coach Larry Fedora succinctly put it.

In the waning seconds of the first half, Duke was set up for 24-yard field goal. The routine conversion would've put Duke up two scores going into the break. 

But defensive lineman Jason Strowbridge got a hand on the kick, and the Tar Heels got the ball back with just 22 seconds left. Instead of resting on their laurels, the Tar Heels went on the offensive.

UNC Quarterback Chazz Surratt threw two bombs to Anthony Ratliff-Williams, the first for 35 yards and the second a 45-yard touchdown. In 13 seconds, the Tar Heels had orchestrated a drive that accounted for more than half of their total offensive output in the first half. 10-10.

Before those final two plays, Duke was dominating and led 222 to 76 in total yardage. But, because of the big plays, the game was tied.

It looked like the Tar Heels were going to shake off their odd first half and hit the ground running in the third quarter. The defense allowed a field goal to open the half, but a 56-yard touchdown scamper by Surratt promptly gave UNC a 17-13 lead.

But it was the final impact plays that buried North Carolina.

With 9:22 left in the fourth, Duke’s Daniel Jones launched up a 45-yard pass to T.J. Rahming. The double-coverage snag allowed the Blue Devils to pound it into the end zone a few plays later and take back the lead.

The Tar Heels got the ball back with 6:04 left in the game, 76 yards from a go-ahead touchdown. A 24-yard catch by Ratliff-Williams brought the Tar Heels past the 50-yard line and within striking distance. But two quick plays left UNC facing a third and 12 with the game on the line.

There was a snap, then a scramble. As a defender dragged him down, Surratt tossed a short middle-of-the-field pass to Ratliff-Williams. Duke’s Bryon Fields Jr. stepped in front, took it 61 yards back to the house and slammed the door shut for North Carolina.

It’s not a bad thing to have game-changing plays, but it’s different when a team relies purely on those moments for a win.

Other than those few plays, the offense had very little rhythm. In the first half, 127 of its 156 yards came from three plays. And while Tom Sheldon has proven to be one of the best punters in the country, it’s not ideal to have him kick the ball eight times in one game.

Part of the team’s inconsistency lies in the run game. And while Surratt had solid numbers — 17 carries for 77 yards and a touchdown — the running backs were mostly ineffective. Jordon Brown and Michael Carter combined for just 16 carries for 49 yards.

“I’ve got a lot of concerns everywhere," Fedora said. “We probably didn’t run the ball as efficiently as we’d liked to. You've got to give them credit for some of the things they were doing up front.”

Runs for no gain and quick incompletions consistently left UNC in difficult third-down situations. Duke also won the turnover battle, albeit just 1 to 0 — but that's something any football team stresses the importance of.

“Coach pointed it out to us that in the last five years that he’s been here, whoever won the turnover battle has won the game,” safety Donnie Miles said. “The quarterback did a good job taking care of the ball. I think we played better, but we just didn’t finish.”

That's been a common theme. UNC has led in the fourth quarter of every game this season. And, despite some individual heroics and a second straight week of defensive improvement, the Tar Heels sit at 1-3.

In the end, Duke won necessary battles on the stat sheet to get the job done on the road. And the well North Carolina went to for big plays eventually ran dry.

In the end, they just weren’t enough.


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