Howell weathers tough day, but makes big passes before Surratt wins it for UNC on interception

R.L. Bynum, Triangle Sports Network
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NCAA FB: North Carolina 20, Duke 17

By R.L. Bynum
@rl_bynum

CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina quarterback Sam Howell struggled through the worst game of his short college career. But he somehow battled enough to win and still threw for 227 yards while completing some big passes.

Like the pitcher who wins without his best stuff, Howell somehow did that with the help of a solid game from his running backs and kicker Noah Ruggles taking advantage of a second chance.

Howell made enough plays to make up for bad throws and two interceptions as North Carolina ended a three-game losing streak against Duke with a 20-17 victory Saturday night. The Victory Bell finally resides again in Chapel Hill.

The win, along with Virginia’s loss to Louisville, leaves the Tar Heels (4-4 overall) tied with the Cavaliers for the ACC Coastal Division lead at 3-2 headed into Virginia’s visit next Saturday night to Kenan Stadium. Duke fell to 4-4 overall and 2-3 in the ACC.

“It was good for us because, you know, a lot of times this year, the games are going the other way,” Howell said. 

This was the seventh UNC game out of eight this season decided by six points or fewer.

Receivers dropping the ball have made it rough on Howell most of the season. Against Duke, there was only one clear drop. But, clearly, Howell wasn’t on his game and showed happy feet at times when the offensive line struggled to protect him. Quite often, though, the pocket collapsed.

Carolina wouldn’t have won without a couple of big connections on a key late drive. First, it was a 41-yard pass to Beau Corrales with less than four minutes left, then a 10-yard pass play to Dazz Newsome on fourth down with 3:02 left to give UNC a first-and-goal at the Duke 4.

UNC running back Javonte Williams’ fumble ended that drive there for the Tar Heels’ first red-zone turnover of the season. It didn’t look like the defense would clean up the mistake, committing multiple penalties to put Duke on the verge of the victory at the UNC 2.

But a UNC timeout proved to be huge.

Defensive coordinator Jay Bateman told his defense during the time out to watch out for the jump pass. Chazz Surratt was ready. He intercepted the ill-fated and awkward-looking heave from Duke running back Deon Jackson with 14 seconds left to put the game away. 

“I don’t think so,” was Surratt’s answer when asked if he would have been prepared for that pass had the Tar Heels not called time out. That capped a 12-tackle game for the converted quarterback, who was burned against Duke two seasons earlier when he threw a late interception. It was his third consecutive double-digit tackles game.

“I think it’s crazy,” he said. “But I mean, you know, stuff happens for a reason. I was in that position for a reason. So, I mean, thank God. First off, stuff like that just doesn’t happen.”

The intended Duke target on the play was Noah Gray.

“So, he’s covered,” Duke coach David Cutcliffe said. “If he’s covered, you’re trying to throw it out the back of the end zone. It looked like somebody got into Deon’s feet. Just didn’t work out.”

Howell finished 10 of 26 for 227 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions with the fewest completions of his career. But he averaged a season-high 22.7 point per completion. It was only his second two-interception game and the third game in which he’s had a pass intercepted.

“I thought Duke did a really good job of bringing so many different looks and twists and blitzing with a lot of front guys,” said Coach Mack Brown, who became UNC’s all-time winningest coach in UNC program history with 73 victories. “They confused us.”

But the big numbers for the Tar Heels offense were the 111 rushing yards from Javonte Williams, 65 from Michael Carter and 50 from Antonio Williams. The Tar Heels averaged 4.6 per rush.

A 40-yard run by Javonte Williams jump-started a stagnant second-half offense for UNC in the fourth quarter to set up a 40-yard Ruggles field goal with 7:04 left in the game. 

Capping a drive dominated by runs, Howell threw a pinpoint pass in the end zone that wide receiver Corrales snagged with an outstanding over-the-shoulder catch to give UNC a 7-3 lead with 1:36 left in the first half.

UNC added to its lead on a 47-yard play from Howell to Newsome. Newsome battled his way the last few yards to make in the end zone with 13:23 left in the third quarter and UNC led 14-3.

Duke finally found the end zone minutes later on an 11-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Quinton Harris to wide receiver Scott Bracey. Duke’s Jalen Alexander intercepted a tipped Howell pass shortly afterward, which Duke converted into a 7-yard Harris touchdown run to give the Blue Devils a 17-14 lead with 8:37 left in the third quarter.

Ruggles tied it with a 34-yard field goal with 3:59 left in the third quarter.

BOX SCORE (NCAA.COM)

Trying to boot away kicking troubles
After Ruggles missed crucial field-goal attempts in the loss at Virginia Tech, Brown announced that freshman Jonathan Kim would take over place-kicking duties.

That didn’t exactly work well. Kim’s first point-after try was good, but he kicked it low. A 52-yard field goal attempt was wide right and poorly struck.

Given another chance, Ruggles made his first point-after try in the third quarter and a 34-yard field-goal try later in that quarter, along with the go-ahead 40-yard field goal in the fourth quarter.

“That he comes back tonight not knowing if he was going to kick or not? He could have had his head down there and what he did was he prepared for the kicks tonight,” Brown said. “Good for him. It’s a great message. Don’t ever give up. Don’t ever quit.”

Secondary concerns

UNC was already without several players in the secondary, which had forced freshman Storm Duck into the starting lineup at cornerback.

Duck’s day ended after one play on Saturday with what UNC called an upper-body injury. It appeared that he banged his head on the artificial surface. He started Saturday for the fourth consecutive week.

That meant many more snaps for DeAndre Hollins, who shifted from nickelback to cornerback, and few substitutions the rest of the game.

Duck joined the list of injured DBs that started when cornerback Patrice Rene suffered a season-ending ACL tear against Miami. Safety Miles Wolfolk had three interceptions before suffering a lower-body injury against Appalachian State that has sidelined him for five games. Safety Cam’Ron Kelly tore his ACL in the Clemson game and hasn’t played since. In the win at Georgia Tech, cornerback Trey Morrison suffered an upper-body injury and hasn’t returned.

Senior safety Miles Dorn is the only UNC defensive back who has started every game.

Navy blue against Duke?

The most surprising game choice was UNC going with navy blue uniforms against Duke. Duke blue certainly isn’t the same as navy blue. But it’s much closer than if you compare Carolina blue with Duke blue.

It seems that there are lots of other weeks when UNC could go with these particular alternate uniforms.

Of note? Instead of featuring “NC” on the helmets, there were feet with tar on the heels. The feet first showed up on UNC helmets in 2012 when on chrome-colored helmets. That was for Carolina’s 43–35 victory over another rival, N.C. State, that was won on a 73-yard punt return for a touchdown by Gio Bernard. That helmet also was used later that season in a 37-13 victory at Virginia.

The foot was also on the helmet in 2014 for a 45-20 victory at Duke. Obviously, the foot worked against Duke again on Saturday night.