R.L. Bynum, Correspondent
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — For the better part of the first half, there finally was clarity to North Carolina’s frustrating quarterback situation.
True freshman Cade Fortin was getting more comfortable and ran the ball well even as he was the victim of a couple of dropped passes.
But he absorbed a crushing hit at the end of a run late in the half and injured his right knee.
Back to square one.
Re-enter Nathan Elliott, who fumbled in one of his two first-half plays after being demoted as the starter last week.
With Fortin wearing sweatpants, Elliott again got the call to start the second half.
And he answered it well.
But with the same red-zone breakdowns that plagued the Tar Heels throughout, they couldn’t hold on as Virginia Tech rallied for a 22-19 victory Saturday night at Kenan Stadium.
“We had multiple chances to win that game and we just didn’t capitalize. We’ve got to score more in the red zone,” said Elliott, who completed 10 of 14 passes for 149 yards and one touchdown with no turnovers.
Two big hits near the same goal line were the most damaging.
One was the hit on Fortin.
The other was when Hokies safety Tyree Rodgers’ helmet dislodged the ball from Michael Carter to force a fumble just as the Tar Heels were about to put the game away.
Instead, the Hokies pulled off an eight-play, 98-yard game-winning drive.
That came after what was Elliott’s most clutch play of the night.
He completed pinpoint a pass for an 80-yard play to tight end Carl Tucker with UNC facing third-and-long near their goal line.
The big problem in two losses were mistakes by the quarterbacks, who were responsible for 10 of the Tar Heels’ 11 turnovers coming into the game.
This time, it was mistakes by the running backs: Carter’s fourth-quarter fumble and Antonio Williams’ fumble on the game’s first play that led to the Hokies’ first touchdown.
There may not be more clarity about the quarterback situation with Fortin’s status unclear and Chaz Surratt out for the season.
What was clear is that, other than a couple of overthrows, you can’t blame the loss on the quarterbacks.
“When you say what a team player, that’s what Nathan Elliott is,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said.
“He cares what’s best for the football team and doing anything he can no matter what his role is. There was no doubt in my mind that he would prepare himself as if he was the starter. He went out there and did a heck of a job.”
Although he didn’t turn the ball over, he would love to have one throw back.
Against blown Hokies coverage, Anthony Ratliff-Williams was alone on the left side of the end zone, but Elliott overthrew him.
“I had a touchdown to Ratliff,” Elliott said.
“If I just throw the ball right on him, we win that game and that’s on me. We had multiple chances to win that game and we just didn’t capitalize. We’ve got to score more in the red zone.”
When asked if the week was an emotional roller-coaster for him with being demoted and then being counted on in the second half, he said “a little bit,” but seemed ready for whatever was presented to him.
“I just want to play football. I knew I was going to get to play. I had a package in today that I was going to come in for a little bit,” he said of a play designed for him.
“When I get my opportunities, I want to make the most of them.”
“I love this game,” Elliott said.
“I grew up in a small town. All we did was play football. All I do is play football. However that looks, that means I’m coming in the second half or the fourth quarter, I don’t care. I just want to play ball and I’m going to be ready when I come out and play.”
It didn’t look like Elliott would play much at all before Fortin got injured.
Fortin had started to look like the quarterback the Tar Heels had needed all season.
He finished 10 of 18 for 165 yards with no interceptions and ran for 57 more yards.
“I thought the kid came in and did some really good things in the game,” said Fedora, who decided Thursday to start Fortin.
“There were probably a couple of throws that he would have liked to have had back but he made some really good throws also. We dropped one for a touchdown.”
Other than a few plays in mop-up duty against East Carolina, Fortin mostly watched games since his junior year at North Gwinnett High School in Georgia.
After throwing for 1,841 yards and 16 touchdowns and running for 512 yards and three TDs as a junior, he missed most of his senior year after breaking a leg in the second game.
He got a head-start on learning Fedora’s system by enrolling early last spring but found himself third on the depth chart before Elliott’s poor play, and Surratt’s season-ending surgery gave him his chance against the Hokies.
He originally was headed to Texas A&M, but reopened his recruitment when Coach Kevin Sumlin was fired in December.
He committed to UNC shortly afterward.
“I thought he was very poised. There were not too many times where I thought he was worried about the rush,” Fedora said.
“I thought he really did a good job of taking care of the football when he threw the ball and took the ball where he wanted to go.”
Fortin should have had an 85-yard touchdown pass in the first half, but a wide-open Daz Newsome dropped what would have no doubt been a touchdown.
In another case, he had Newsome open and overthrew him.
“He’s pretty level-headed throughout everything we’ve been able to throw at him,” Fedora said.
“Even if we’ve rattled him, he’s been pretty level-headed about. I think he’s handled himself well.”
Fortin spent the second half with his jersey on but wearing sweatpants.
He stood for most of the time and walked around slowly.
Fedora never comments on injuries and claimed not to know what Fortin’s status is.
At least for now, that’s not his biggest worry.
His biggest worry is outgaining an opponent 522 yards to 375, yet still not winning because of all the mistakes.
He contends that the Tar Heels are close.
We’ll find out how close next week at Syracuse.
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