All season long, North Carolina's football team has stalled early in games and relied on heroics in the closing minutes to have a chance at victory. Against No. 1 Clemson, in a matchup where everyone had written the Tar Heels off, UNC broke that mold to play the team's most complete game of the season during its 21-20 loss to the Tigers.
“We didn’t do this tonight,” head coach Mack Brown said while moving his arm up and down, a reference to the team’s inconsistent play this season. “We actually played the whole game.”
In a game where part of the hype was fueled by the quarterback battle between first-year Sam Howell and sophomore Trevor Lawrence, North Carolina’s former quarterback-turned-linebacker, Chazz Surratt, was one of the key players that helped the Tar Heels perform well on both sides of the ball.
After an injury scare early in the second quarter saw Surratt go down on the field, the junior quickly returned to finish out one of the best games of his career with UNC.
Moments after returning to play, Surratt landed a huge hit on Lawrence right before the Tigers’ first touchdown.
From then on, Surratt made his presence known.
Later on in the quarter, Surratt “had fun” when he sacked Lawrence for a loss of nine yards to force a three-and-out by Clemson, a team that has only allowed three sacks in its first four games of this season.
“Chazz (Surratt) had a great game,” Brown said. “It’s as good linebacker play as I’ve seen in a long time, so we’re really proud of him.”
On a third-and-11 for Clemson in the third quarter, Surratt was there to smack Lawrence’s arm, forcing a fourth down. At the end of that same period, the linebacker wrapped up a scrambling Lawrence, leaving the Clemson quarterback with no option but to throw the ball away and force another fourth-and-11.
Despite all of the big stops on defense, Surratt still wasn’t satisfied.
“We don’t take any moral victories around here,” Surratt said. “We wanted to win, but on the other side of it, we played hard. We went against the No. 1 team in the country and I think we battled every play.”
Fellow linebacker Jeremiah Gemmel was proud of the effort that his teammate has made during the position changing process.
“I’m so proud of how far he’s came from where he started because, at first, we were really worried, we didn’t know if we could put him in,” Gemmel said. “But if you would’ve told me now that he’s playing how he is, I would’ve told you you were lying.”
On the offensive side of the ball, Howell is another player for North Carolina whose development helped the Tar Heels come as close to upsetting the reigning national champions as they did.
“Like Surratt, Sam (Howell) will grow,” Brown said. “It’s a pretty tough night for a true freshman quarterback against the No. 1 team in the country, and I thought he did some good things.”
Rather than falter in the middle of the matchup like UNC had done in most of the games so far this year, Howell helped lead the offense to its second touchdown of the afternoon midway through the second quarter.
After Gemmel forced a fumble and North Carolina recovered, Michael Carter’s 31-yard run brought the Tar Heels to Clemson’s 11-yard line.
From there, Howell hit wide receiver Beau Corrales with a 4-yard pass down the sideline before North Carolina was backed up to the 12-yard line thanks to a false start penalty. Howell connected with Corrales again two plays later, a dump off to the junior right in front of the offensive line that Corrales ran in for a 10-yard touchdown.
But, like Surratt said after the game, the Tar Heels don’t accept moral victories. After Saturday’s performance against the top-ranked team in the nation, Brown left the team with a simple message going forward.
“This shows us what we can be.”
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