Chazz Surratt sat in the Kenan Football Center, just over a half hour removed from North Carolina’s 27-17 loss to Duke, dwelling on the plays he couldn’t make.
By the numbers, it was the redshirt freshman’s most prolific game in his collegiate career. He tied his career high in passing yards (259), matching last week’s total in a win over Old Dominion, and he set a new mark for rushing yards (77) on a team-high 17 carries. He took every snap behind center for the first time of his career, all while his teammates — primarily on offense — could hardly stay on the field.
Yet it was also the third time in four games the Tar Heels (1-3, 0-2 ACC) had blown a lead entering the fourth quarter. Three weeks ago, Surratt was in this same room preaching the importance of avoiding turnovers, after Brandon Harris tossed two interceptions in a season-opening loss to California. Two weeks ago, Surratt was on an exercise bike in the fourth quarter as Louisville pulled away late.
This time, Surratt was leading the charge, and it was his costly turnover — a pick-six with four minutes left and his team within three — that buried the Tar Heels.
“I thought he did a really nice job of taking what they were giving us,” coach Larry Fedora said, “and then as the game got closer there, I think he really tried to make something happen.”
This is what starting a freshman quarterback looks like.
There were flashes, as there have been all season with Surratt. There was the 13-second scoring drive — with two beautiful passes of 35 and 45 yards to Anthony Ratliff-Williams — to tie the game nine seconds before halftime. There was the 56-yard touchdown run, the longest play of his career, to give UNC a three-point lead in the third quarter. There was the vicious stiff arm one possession later, on a 17-yard run, that Surratt said gave his team a jolt heading into the fourth quarter.
But in that final quarter, Surratt committed the worst error of his young career. Facing pressure as he had all afternoon, the redshirt freshman tossed a two-handed mistake right into the arms of Duke’s star cornerback Byron Fields Jr., who took it 61 yards the other way to ensure UNC would leave Kenan Stadium with its third home loss in four weeks.
"I just didn't want to give up a sack,” Surratt said. “I just didn't have a good platform to throw."
It was a nail in the coffin for Surratt in his first game against Duke, the school he committed to before flipping to UNC. And it epitomized what’s plagued Surratt early in his North Carolina career — trying to do too much.
In his first start, that 47-35 loss to Louisville, Surratt matched wits with reigning Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson for much of the contest. But in the second quarter, with Cardinal defenders bearing down, he danced around the backfield before flipping the ball behind him on an errant pass attempt. It was a 21-yard loss that killed UNC’s drive after nearly crossing midfield.
Last week, in his first collegiate win at Old Dominion, Surratt fumbled again on UNC’s first drive of the second half. It didn’t cost the Tar Heels — Surratt recovered, and the Tar Heels already held a sizable lead — but it was sloppy ball control when North Carolina’s only concern was maintaining possession.
Surratt didn’t fumble on Saturday, but his interception was the consummate example of reaching for more than the defense allowed. Ratliff-Williams took the blame postgame for misreading the coverage, but Surratt was the one who pulled the trigger. A third-down sack would have been damaging but not crippling, and even had Surratt gotten the pass off cleanly — which was unlikely with a wonky two-handed delivery — the catch would have been short of the first-down marker.
Instead, it was six points for Duke. And Surratt, who spent most of Saturday carrying the Tar Heel offense, didn’t have any answers.
"I'm just trying to make a play,” he said.
Can you blame him? Entering Saturday, Surratt’s second-best receiver and nearly his entire offensive line was on the injury report. Receivers Austin Proehl and Rontavius Groves joined them during the game. For a unit already depleted by offseason departures, it’s no surprise Surratt is searching for the big play, like he did on UNC's only two touchdowns against Duke. Sometimes, it's the only way the Tar Heels can score.
On Saturday, though, it didn't always work. Sans the two Ratliff-Williams receptions to end the first half, Surratt went 2-for-7 for 54 yards in the first half, and he added just 125 yards and that crucial interception in the second half. The dual-threat quarterback turned to his legs early and often to evade Duke’s talented front seven, but at times he missed reads and felt pressure that wasn’t there — something he alluded to after the game. Take away that 56-yard run, and Surratt rushed 16 times for 21 yards with four sacks.
Of course, you can’t erase that run, nor can you discount those two first-half dimes. With a freshman as talented as Surratt behind center, it’s all part of the package.
“That's all you can ask for in a quarterback with that kind of experience,” Ratliff-Williams said. “Keep us in the game and make plays when you can."
Surratt did that Saturday. He kept the Tar Heels in the game until the final minutes and made plays when he could. And it's those plays he tried to make, for better or for worse, that ultimately decided the game.