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Second-quarter safety sums up North Carolina football's 33-10 loss to Notre Dame

Surratt sacked

Quarterback Chazz Surratt (12)  is pressured by Notre Dame defenders on Oct. 7 in Kenan Memorial Stadium.

By the time Jordon Brown touched the ball, he was already surrounded.

A few seconds earlier, Saturday’s game between North Carolina and No. 16 Notre Dame was different. UNC had survived seven fruitless possessions and five consecutive three-and-outs to pull within seven points of the Fighting Irish.

Now, trailing 14-7 at its own one-yard line with 38 seconds left in the half, it was time for UNC (1-5) to execute a simple strategy.

“What I wanted to do was get out of the half without any problems,” head coach Larry Fedora said.

One play removed from a failed deep lob to Anthony Ratliff-Williams, the offense lined up in the shotgun. It was a simple zone read play that the team has run countless times this season. Surratt took the snap and stuck the ball into the stomach of his sophomore running back.

596 combined pounds of unblocked Notre Dame defenders met him at the mesh point.

Brown put his head down and tried to power forward, but it was a lost cause. Defensive linemen Jay Hayes and Jerry Tillery threw Brown to the ground, right on top of the UNC end zone paint that spelled out ‘CAROLINA’ in tall, capital letters. Safety.

Notre Dame increased its lead to 16-7, and the ESPN crew calling the game was stupefied.

“Play-calling going from bad to worse from first down to second down,” commentator Bob Wischusen said, his previously calm voice now loud and commanding. “Jerry Tillery and Jay Hayes score two for the Irish after back-to-back plays that, quite frankly, are mind-numbing in terms of what you’re doing strategically.”

After UNC’s eventual 33-10 loss, a dismal Cam Dillard explained what went wrong on the play. The graduate transfer center had lined up expecting a normal blocking assignment. The two linemen to his right, right guard R.J. Prince and right tackle Charlie Heck, did the same.

“They just brought more than we could handle,” Dillard said. “We weren’t prepared for a line stunt.”

Huard broke it down on ESPN with his "Brock’s Clicker" segment, using a digital yellow pen over the replay to show exactly where the offensive line went wrong.

As soon as Dillard snapped the ball, Tillery and Hayes both attacked different gaps on the offensive line than UNC expected them to. This was their “stunt” — an intentional attempt to confuse blockers, and one that’s usually reserved for passing plays.

“You just can’t do it any better,” Huard explained, rewinding the play over and over. “You’ve got an inside rush here, and your right guard and center … They do not target at all.”

That was no exaggeration. Prince got a small block on Hayes, but the redshirt senior lost his balance trying to change direction. As Notre Dame tackled Brown in the end zone, Prince was falling forward with his back to the play. Dillard had been beaten, too.

“They should not even be put into this situation,” Huard then added, defending North Carolina’s offensive line. “Get yourself under center. You sneak the ball, make them burn their timeouts and go to halftime.”

Oddly enough, UNC is no stranger to the safety. It has now allowed four of them in its last 19 games. All three of those safeties from last season, like the one against Notre Dame on Saturday, came from plays in the shotgun. And after the Fighting Irish recorded that two-point score, they promptly outscored the Tar Heels 17-3 in the second half.

Surratt had a ball batted in the air and intercepted on UNC’s first second-half drive. After getting zero first-half touches, Notre Dame running back Deon McIntosh rushed for 124 yards and two touchdowns. Safety Donnie Miles left the game with an injury, joining punter Tom Sheldon on the bench and adding to North Carolina’s running list of banged up players.

“It comes to me, as a head coach, putting them in a position to be successful,” Fedora said. “I haven’t found a way to make that happen yet. If I knew what it was, I would’ve changed it.”

For a 1-5 UNC team still looking for its first home win, the safety epitomized the game.

And the emotions that came with it — miscommunication, frustration and disbelief — encapsulated the season.

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