CHAPEL HILL — Two seasons ago, the North Carolina football team seemed to find a new way to win every week on its way to 10 straight victories and an ACC Coastal Division title.
These days, the Tar Heels keep finding familiar ways to lose.
Saturday, they followed what is rapidly becoming their trademark pattern by taking a lead into the fourth quarter and failing to hold onto it in a 27-17 loss to Duke in the battle for the Victory Bell at Kenan Stadium.
It was the third time in as many losses, all of which have come at home, that UNC has let an opponent rally from behind in the final period to beat it this season. This one was by far the most painful because of all the injuries coach Larry Fedora’s team had to overcome and the rival it came against.
“We talked hard about finishing. We worked this week knowing we’ve been ahead in all these games,” Fedora said after watching his team drop its fourth straight home game dating back to last season and sixth straight overall against Power 5 opponents.
“It wasn’t a lack of effort. We just didn’t make the plays we needed to make there in the fourth quarter and they did.”
The game was a struggle right from the start for the Tar Heels, who came in shorthanded with 15 regulars either sidelined with or playing through injuries.
Not only did their depleted ranks get even thinner with wide receivers Austin Proehl and Rontavius Groves and defensive tackle Tyler Powell all going down, they also had to battle through Duke’s domination of the time of possession battle.
The Blue Devils (4-0, 1-0 ACC) controlled the ball for 11 minutes more than UNC during the first three quarters and at one point late in the first half and early in the second maintained possession for an incredible 31 out of a possible 39 plays.
And yet, even with that disparity, the Tar Heels still managed to outscore their rival 14-3 to take an improbable lead.
Freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt hooked up with Anthony Ratliff-Williams, one of the few front-line receivers he had left, for completions of 35 and 45 yards for a touchdown in the final 13 seconds of the first half before turning a broken play into a 56-yard touchdown run on UNC’s first possession after halftime.
“He gave us a chance,” Ratliff-Williams said of Surratt, who took a beating while absorbing four sacks and numerous other hits from an aggressive Duke defense that had its way against a patchwork Tar Heel offensive line.
“He kept us in the game and that’s all you can ask for in a quarterback with that kind of experience. Keep us in the game and make plays when you can.”
Surratt, who originally committed to the Blue Devils before eventually flipping to UNC, did what he could by accounting for 336 of his team’s 377 total yards in the game. He passed for 259 yards while adding a season-high 77 yards on 17 carries in his third career start.
But in the end, he got caught trying to do too much once Duke finally took advantage of a fatigued Tar Heel defense to go back ahead 20-17 with 6:09 remaining.
It happened on a third-and-12 play from the UNC 44. Scrambling out of trouble to keep the play alive, Surratt tried to feather a pass across the middle to tight end Brandon Fritts that was picked off by the Blue Devils’ Bryon Fields and returned 61 yards for the clinching score.
“I was just trying to get the ball out of my hand,” Surratt said of his first career interception. “I didn’t want to give up a sack. I didn’t have a good platform to throw and it ended up going for six the other way.”
The young quarterback was philosophical afterwards, tempering his disappointment by saying that his team could easily be 4-0 instead of 1-3 (0-2 in the ACC) and that there’s still plenty of season left to clean up the mistakes and turn things around.
Not all of his teammates were as good at holding in their frustration.
“It sucks, man. It stinks. There’s nothing else I can say,” said linebacker Cole Holcomb, who tied a career-best with 13 tackles. “We just have to learn how to finish games. It’s been the main theme this year.”
Fedora said he’ll reserve judgment on what’s causing the fourth quarter collapses and how to fix them until he has a chance to watch this latest game tape.
One thing on which he is certain, though, is whose job it is to come up with a solution to the problem.
“Everybody understands that’s my responsibility,” Fedora said. “We’re up in the fourth, I’ve got to find a way to get this team to finish.”