First, some facts: Carolina football is seriously short-handed right now. The Tar Heels entered Saturday’s game without middle linebacker Andre Smith, who is out for the season; without senior wide receiver Thomas Jackson, also out for the season; without right tackle William Sweet and left guard Tommy Hatton. And Saturday they played without cornerback Corey Bell Jr. and defensive tackle Jalen Dalton.
Injuries have absolutely hammered this 2017 roster, and it got worse Saturday, when senior receiver Austin Proehl appeared to suffer a broken clavicle that would likely end his career. When defensive tackle Tyler Powell hurt his right leg and was helped off the field. When Rontavius Groves, finally healthy and playing in the first college game of his career, suffered what looked like a devastating knee injury in the second half. The depth chart has been decimated; the assignments breaking down not just because of a lack of communication, but because there is almost no one healthy to assign them to. It’s heartbreaking.
"When it happens to you like that,” Larry Fedora said of the in-game injuries, “You have to change offensively. You’ve got guys trying to play a position that they haven’t worked a single time in practice, and you’re trying to do some things with two tight ends and two backs, you have to create some type of game plan, really, in the middle of the game there.”
And yet, Carolina had the chance to win Saturday’s Victory Bell match-up with Duke, leading entering the fourth quarter as the now 1-3 Tar Heels have every game this season.
Even after giving up a ‘catastrophic’ pass — the team’s term for plays of 30 yards or more — that went for 45 yards with nine minutes to play, the Tar Heel defense had the chance to get off the field with the lead. Yet on 4th and 5, they allowed a 12-yard completion and a touchdown three plays later.
And then redshirt freshman quarterback Chazz Surratt, seemingly the only Tar Heel who was able to find running room (mostly on designed draws), threw an ill-advised pass under pressure into the arms of Duke’s Bryon Fields Jr., who rumbled 61 yards into the end zone. In two minutes and eight seconds of game time, Carolina had gone from up four to down ten.
Without Jackson and Proehl, Surratt had turned to Anthony Ratliff-Williams, who made two brilliant catches on the game-tying drive to close the first half. And as mentioned above, Surratt had had success with his feet to that point. But as the game drew tighter, as every down became more crucial, he seemed to be a bit too eager to run. “I think he did a really nice job of taking what they were giving us,” Fedora said, “and then as the game got closer there, I think he really tried to make something happen, and that’s when we made the mistake.”
Late in the game, with the Heels needing 10 points to tie, Fedora made the curious decision not to kick a field goal on 4th down from the Duke 15, instead going with a short pass to Jordan Cunningham. Yes, a win was unlikely, but the Tar Heels were going to need the ball back anyway with an onside kick. Why not take the points and stay in the game? “I just . . . felt like we had a chance to get it in, you know, so that’s what I did,” Fedora said.
So that was that; when Cunningham needed 12 and got seven, the game was over. Once again, Carolina had squandered a fourth-quarter lead. If college football games were three quarters, the Tar Heels would be 4-0. Alas, they aren’t, and as of Monday, Carolina will have beaten a single FBS school (Georgia Tech) in Kenan Stadium in the last 365 days.
The Tar Heel offense’s inability to convert on third down, and the defense’s inability to get off the field on third and fourth down, is analogous to the team itself’s inability to put opponents away in four quarters: they just can’t seem to finish. “I think there are big parallels with that,” senior cornerback M.J. Stewart said. “I believe the little things matter. Those third and fourth downs that we don’t get off the field in the first quarter, it trickles over into the fourth quarter. (If) we get off the field, that’s a big game-changer, give the offense the ball back, and maybe other things happen. So, those third and fourth downs are so crucial to get off the field, and I think as a defense, that’s what we need to do better.”
It gets no easier as the Tar Heels travel to Atlanta to take on Paul Johnson and the flex-bone offense of Georgia Tech. An already thin team will be cut-blocked and perhaps run ragged by the triple-option attack of the Yellow Jackets. But that is for next week. Tomorrow, they’ll watch the film, put Duke behind them and carry on — the few, the proud, the healthy.
“We’re in a position to win a football game in the fourth quarter, and we didn’t finish, and that’s happened to us three times,” Fedora continued. “Everybody understands, that’s my responsibility. We’re up in the fourth, I’ve got to find a way for this team to finish.”
That he does.