While North Carolina players and coaches trudged toward their locker room following their 27-17 defeat against Duke on Saturday, one of the Tar Heels’ injured starters stood in the tunnel wearing street clothes, and a protective boot, while another hobbled off the field on crutches.
Another starter, receiver Austin Proehl, was back in the locker room after suffering a broken collarbone and yet another receiver, Rontavius Groves, who was playing in his first college game, was learning the severity of a right knee injury that required a cart to remove him from the field. All around coach Larry Fedora and his team were broken men, their bodies twisted and torn by the game.
It has reached a point, after four games, at which it’s fair to wonder how much more UNC can take. There are the injuries, two more starters lost on Saturday, and another, Groves, lost, too. The Tar Heels carried a lengthy list of injured players into Kenan Stadium, even before kickoff. Equally debilitating, if not more so, are the defeats, and the specific, gut-turning way in which UNC is losing.
Four times this season UNC has entered the fourth quarter holding a lead. Three of those times the Tar Heels lost, as they did Saturday, when Duke’s 61-yard interception return for a touchdown turned the game, and perhaps UNC’s season, with about four minutes remaining.
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“We’re in position to win a football game in the fourth quarter, and we didn’t finish,” Fedora said afterward. “And that’s happened to us three times. So everybody understands, that’s my responsibility. … We’re up in the fourth, I’ve got to find a way to get this team to finish.”
The Tar Heels (1-3, 0-2 ACC) already were running out of bodies, what with the loss, for the season, of middle linebacker Andre Smith, receiver Thomas Jackson and offensive linemen William Sweet. Several others entered Saturday ailing and physically limited, as well.
Now, though, it’s quickly becoming a question of whether UNC is losing its will – or, if it hasn’t already, how much more of the same it can take. Against California, UNC entered the fourth quarter leading 24-21, before losing by five. Against Louisville, UNC entered the fourth quarter leading 28-27, before losing by 12.
And then came Saturday against Duke, with UNC entering the fourth quarter leading once again, and …
“We didn’t finish,” said Donnie Miles, the senior safety, speaking as though he’d seen this show before.
This time, the Tar Heels led 17-13 after Chazz Surratt’s 56-yard touchdown run with about 5½ minutes remaining in the third quarter. Surratt, the second-year freshman quarterback from Denver, N.C., first committed to Duke when he was in high school, before changing his mind.
His touchdown run, which inspired perhaps the loudest roar from a Kenan Stadium crowd that was more lively than it had been for any game this season, was the stuff of storybooks – a player scoring the go-ahead touchdown on a highlight-reel play, against the school he spurned years ago.
Instead, Surratt’s long touchdown became but a footnote. It became forgettable, amid another forgettable, but familiar, ending for UNC.
Indeed, the Tar Heels were injured on Saturday. They lost three players to season-ending injuries last week, during a victory at Old Dominion, and they very likely lost three more on Saturday, against Duke. Even so, Fedora said, “We’ve got enough there.”
“We’ve talked hard about finishing,” he said. “We’ve worked this week on knowing – we’ve been ahead in all these games. We’ve talked about it. Our guys, it wasn’t a lack of effort, you know, We just didn’t make the plays that we needed to make there in the fourth quarter. And they did.”
The Tar Heels have now lost six consecutive games against teams from major conferences. That streak includes defeats against Duke, Louisville and Cal this season, and losses against Stanford, N.C. State and Duke to end last season.
The Tar Heels’ most recent victory against a Power 5 opponent came against Georgia Tech on Nov. 5, 2016 – 322 days ago, as of Saturday. The fourth quarters of games, for UNC, have become exercises in mental fortitude as much as they are about anything physical. Fedora’s players often spend those 15 minutes trying not to think of past breakdowns, attempting to push negative thoughts as far out of their minds as possible.
“Once you let that set in, you’ve already lost the game,” said M.J. Stewart, the senior cornerback. “So you’ve got to keep pushing, keep pushing, play by play, win every play. You can’t let anything, every previous game creep in your mind. You can’t even let losing creep in your mind.”
And yet here the Tar Heels are, losers of three of their first four games, searching for health, for something positive – searching for belief that their season can be salvaged. It becomes no easier, with games in the next two weeks at Georgia Tech and then against Notre Dame.
If there was a positive on Saturday for the Tar Heels, it was that their defense, which Cal and Louisville exploited during the first two weeks, played well enough to deliver a victory. That was encouraging, at least. And yet while the defense held late, the offense faltered.
Throughout much of Fedora’s first six seasons at UNC, he could take for granted basic execution on offense. He had the luxury, during his first five seasons, of an abundance of talent and experience, and points often came freely.
On the game’s pivotal play on Saturday, though, Fedora found himself closely watching whether a reserve receiver could properly run the correct route. It was a third-and-12 play from the Duke 44-yard line, the Tar Heels attempting to rally for a dramatic victory. Surratt took the snap and dropped back.
“I was watching the receiver that was in at the position that he’s never played to see if we could run the route,” Fedora said. “And we didn’t.”
The Blue Devils (4-0, 1-0) pressured Surratt, and he scrambled. He threw a pass, under duress, that Bryon Fields, the Duke cornerback, returned for the 61-yard touchdown. There were still four minutes remaining, but the Tar Heels, trailing by 10, never seriously threatened to create any late-game theatrics.
And so it ended. The Tar Heels gathered in the end zone closest to their locker room and sung the fight song, as is their tradition after every game. And then there was quiet, most of the players walking off the field with heads hanging, silent. Fedora later said they were “crushed.”
“We’ve got to find a way to get it done,” he said. “There’s no excuse. Nobody really cares about your issues, or your problems. You’ve got to find a way to get it done. So that’s what we’ll do.”
That is his hope. His players repeated as much during their postgame rounds with reporters. Yet now, after three defeats in four games, after watching their teammates fall one after another, after another fourth-quarter letdown, it is becoming fair to wonder how much more anguish, mental and physical, UNC can handle.