4th and 7 at the Miami 38. Carolina trails Miami by 11 points. There are three minutes and 52 seconds on the clock.
Carolina quarterback Nathan Elliott— who before today had completed eight passes in his college career, who had been the odd man out in a three-head quarterback race in the off-season— drops back to pass, then steps up into the pocket. The lefty throws a strike to his second read, Anthony Ratliff-Williams, running a crossing route from left to right. Ratliff-Williams goes up and gets it. First down.
Ten weeks ago, Nathan Elliott was competing with graduate transfer Brandon Harris and redshirt freshman Chazz Surratt to be the Tar Heel starter. The only one with experience in a Carolina uniform, Elliott seemed to be right there in the mix. The fact that only he and Harris could talk to the media in the preseason may have contributed to that perception.
“I’m trying to focus on being the best Nathan Elliott I can be,” he said in early August. “I’m not really worried about anything anyone else does, because I can only do what I can do. I’m not going to try to control the uncontrollable. I’m just going to keep focusing on me, and be the best version of me I can be.”
But Elliott got lost in the shuffle. Harris earned the first snaps of the year, and he and Surratt rotated at quarterback until Surratt took over the everyday job. Elliott, in fact, didn’t play at all until week eight at Virginia Tech, when both Surratt and Harris were banged up. He threw three passes, all incomplete, and was sacked for a nine-yard loss.
A year ago, Elliott was the Tar Heel backup quarterback behind Mitch Trubisky. He wasn’t going to split time with the NFL’s number two overall draft pick, but he did see mop-up duty in four games. What had he learned from Trubisky? He was asked during training camp.
“Just composure. He would have a bad play, he’d come off to the side and he’d be fine,” Elliott said. “He was always locked in. We were never out of the fight, and that was the one thing that I really loved about Mitch. We’d talk about it all the time, just having composure, believing in yourself, being confident, and if you make a bad play, just know that you’re going to come back and make the play the next time.”
Elliott had to put that into practice in Saturday’s game. All week long he’d had a feeling that he couldn’t readily explain, a feeling that he would play against the Hurricanes. And with Surratt coming off the field after a hit, and with Harris on the sideline in sweats, it was Elliott behind center, Elliott making a bad play —he threw three interceptions, though not all his fault— and coming back on the field to try to make good ones.
And so there he was, after the completion to Ratliff-Williams extended the game. A few plays later, one of which was a 12-yard quarterback draw, Elliott hit Beau Corrales for a touchdown. Nathan Elliott to Beau Corrales. Not a combination Tar Heel fans expected to see connect. Not in week nine.
And then after a Miami fumble caused by Cayson Collins and leaped upon by Aaron Crawford, the Tar Heel offense was back in business, and Kenan Stadium was alive. The homecoming crowd was on their feet. Here they were, cheering on a 1-7 team, a team with no hope of a postseason, a team playing for pride. And yet the fans showed up. Not 66,000, no, but the ones that did, the ones that hung around, they were there at the end. They were loud. They were banging on bleachers. They were believing.
“Come on, kid!” one fan yelled toward Elliott. Not as in ‘Come on, kid!’ out of frustration, but as in ‘Come on, kid! We believe in you.’
A false start backed the Tar Heels up five yards, but Elliott picked them back up on a second-down scramble. When he was hit out of bounds, 15 more yards got tacked on. Carolina had 1st and 10 at the Miami 37, still more than two minutes to play.
Come on, kid.
Elliott handed the ball off to Jordon Brown on an inside run. But in this most snake-bitten of seasons, the ball came out. Miami’s Joe Jackson reached in. Jaquan Johnson pounced. So did Nathan Elliott, however, running with Brown. He reached out his right hand, but a hair too late.
Come on, kid.
Miami would get one first down, then take a knee, and the nation’s eighth-ranked team would escape Chapel Hill with a five-point win. It was the expected result, if not the expected margin. And not the expected Tar Heel quarterback.
“I thought he was really gritty and played really tough,” head coach Larry Fedora said of Elliott. “He ran the ball and did some things and gave us some opportunities. There was one ball that he probably didn’t need to throw that he pressed on, but you know what? That kid, as many reps as he has gotten, he went out there, and I thought he did a heck of a job.”
He did. There are no moral victories; this is college football. And the Tar Heels are 1-8. The ceiling is now four wins. But for a few minutes, the fans didn’t care about the record. They were believing, and they were on their feet for Nathan Elliott. He was directing the offense, late in the game, within a score and with a chance to win.
“That’s what I dream about. That’s what every little kid that plays football dreams about, having the chance to beat the number 8 team in the country, having the ball with two minutes on the clock in good territory,” Elliott said. “Unfortunately, we just came up on the other side of that.”
That they did. But one gets the feeling that Nathan Elliott will have other chances.
Come on, kid.
photo by Smith Hardy