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Saturday January 22nd

More injuries plague North Carolina in loss to Duke

<p>UNC fans react to the team's 27-17 loss to Duke on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017 in Kenan Stadium.</p>
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UNC fans react to the team's 27-17 loss to Duke on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017 in Kenan Stadium.

It hurts.

That’s all North Carolina’s players could say, and it’s all they needed to say.

After all, there’s no way to rationalize injuries. Linebacker Andre Smith, wide receiver Thomas Jackson and offensive tackle William Sweet — all starters — cannot explain why that one cut or bad landing ended up costing them the rest of this season.

On Thursday’s injury report, they were three of nine players UNC listed as out for the year after a season just three games old. Ten more players were listed as questionable, doubtful or out as North Carolina entered its earliest game against Duke in school history.

So, the Tar Heels did their best to adjust. With Smith out, Cole Holcomb and Jonathan Smith spent a second straight week taking reps at the starting middle linebacker spot. Jackson’s absence meant even more targets for Austin Proehl and an increased role for Anthony Ratliff-Williams. The offensive line, which hadn’t started the same five players in a game yet, prepared for another week of the same.

And about three hours after Saturday’s kickoff, a bleak situation got even bleaker. The 27-17 loss to Duke frustrated the team enough. But three more in-game injuries — and the way they happened — added salt to the wound.

“It does hurt,” cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “But our mantra is next man up. That's the sport we play.”

In the first quarter, UNC ran a shotgun flea flicker almost identical to the one that burned Duke for a touchdown in 2015. It hurt the Blue Devils this time, too, as quarterback Chazz Surratt connected with Proehl for 47 yards. The wide receiver was tackled from behind at Duke’s 31-yard line.

His landing after the play didn’t seem odd until a few seconds later. Proehl shot up after being tackled and looked ready to celebrate with the roaring crowd. But instead, he paused before jogging to the sideline.

By the second quarter, Proehl was roaming UNC’s sideline in street clothes with his left arm in a sling. Although there’s been no official announcement yet, a tweet from Proehl on Saturday seemed to confirm the worst.

On North Carolina’s first defensive play of the second half, another senior left the field. This time, it was defensive lineman Tyler Powell, who blocked a field goal in UNC’s win over Old Dominion last weekend. And just two plays into UNC’s first possession of the fourth quarter, the third injury came.

In his collegiate debut, redshirt first-year Rontavius Groves was getting an opportunity. Surratt had targeted the wide receiver twice early on, and Groves had gone back to return two punts — one was a fair catch, and the other went for seven yards.

Surratt targeted Groves one more time. The pass sailed a little high, and Groves extended for it but couldn’t get his hands on the ball. Once he hit the ground, he stayed there and clutched his right knee.

The stadium went silent as trainers, coaches and teammates walked out onto the field. Groves, who had recovered from an injury earlier this year to play on Saturday, left the game on a cart with a cast on his right leg. As the crowd stood and cheered, the man teammates call Toe held back tears, raised his fist to the fans and then clasped his hands together in prayer.

“Work so hard to get back to doing what I love to do just to get taken away from it again,” Groves tweeted later that night. “Wanna question God so bad but I know I can’t.”

Head coach Larry Fedora and his staff will make more changes. More players will play in positions they haven’t practiced before, like some wide receivers did against Duke. The team will embrace its next man up philosophy. But the truth of North Carolina’s injury situation holds.

In all senses of the word, it hurts.

@chapelfowler

sports@dailytarheel.com

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