CHAPEL HILL — Chazz Surratt didn’t have to be reminded what happened the last time he played against Duke at Kenan Stadium.
He was well aware of what happened that day in 2017. And even more aware of what it meant to be on the other end of a game-changing play against the rival Blue Devils on Saturday.
It was Surratt’s interception, thrown on an ill-advised heave, that was returned for a decisive touchdown late in the fourth quarter two seasons ago to seal a defeat and kept the Victory Bell in the Blue Devils’ possession for another year.
This time it was Surratt that got to do the ringing after the most unlikely of redemption stories imaginable.
Now a linebacker after having been moved to the opposite side of the ball last summer, Surratt intercepted a jump pass by Duke running back Deon Jackson at the goal line on the next-to-last play of the game to seal a wild 20-17 victory that ended the Tar Heels’ three-game losing streak against its neighboring rival.
“I’m just thankful to help my team win, that’s the most important thing,” Surratt said afterward, attempting to downplay his role in the victory. “We really needed this win for the Coastal (Division) race. We needed to beat Duke. We needed to send the seniors out the right way, that’s the main thing I’m happy for.”
Surratt finally acknowledged that game-saving play was “crazy.”
“But you know,” he added, “stuff happens for a reason. I was in that position for a reason.”
He was also in the right position because defensive coordinator Jay Bateman had seen Duke use a similar play in goal line situations in the past. With the Blue Devils facing a first-and-goal play from the 3-yard line with 18 seconds remaining, needing a touchdown to win, Bateman had a hunch coach David Cutcliffe might pull it out of his bag of tricks again.
So as the Tar Heels trotted back onto the field clinging following a timeout clinging to a precarious three-point lead, he called out to his players warming them to “watch for the pop pass.”
Surratt heeded his coach’s advice. Seeing Jackson slow up after taking a handoff from quarterback Quentin Harris, he stayed back and found himself in just the right place at the right time.
As Jackson jumped, he jumped. The ball came right to him.
“I just wanted to get it,” the quarterback-turned-linebacker said, “and make sure I got the ball in my hands and on the ground.”
Had teammate Javonte Williams been able to do the same and keep the ball in his hands all the way to the ground three minutes earlier, Surratt wouldn’t have needed to make his game-saving play.
But Williams, who was UNC’s main offensive threat with 111 rushing yards on 20 carries, fumbled as he tried to hurdle a Duke defender on his way to the end zone for a clinching score.
“Probably our most safe guy with ball security is the one who fumbles at the goal line,” coach Mack Brown said after surpassing Dick Crum as the winningest coach in school history with his 73rd win with the Tar Heels. “We were trying to score and I just could not believe that the ball popped out.”
The turnover gave the Blue Devils one last chance to pull the game out. And they nearly did, driving from their own 6 to the Tar Heel 2 with the help of two pass interference penalties and a face mask call that nullified a fourth down stop.
With time running out and unable to stop the clock, Duke (4-4, 2-3 ACC) could have opted for a short field goal to send the game into overtime. Instead, Cutcliffe went for the win.
“You hate to see a game end like that for players that fought their heart out,” Cutcliffe said. “We called a little jump pass there at the end that we’ve used sparingly before. It’s been really good. We’ve had it oiled up and ready for about the last three weeks. It didn’t work. No mystery. It just didn’t work.”
Williams’ fumble and the subsequent interception that finally decided the issue were only the final two pivotal plays in a game filled with mistakes and missed opportunities.
The Blue Devils were able to turn both their interceptions of UNC quarterback Sam Howell into points — first with a field goal, then a touchdown that gave them a 17-14 lead by Quentin Harris one play after Jalen Alexander pulled a tipped ball out of the air.
But Duke also had at least two drives stall because of inopportune presnap penalties while two other promising possessions in Tar Heels territory ended in turnovers — a fumble recovery on a strip sack and an interception, both caused by linebacker Dominique Ross.
UNC (4-4, 3-2) wasn’t as opportunistic as its rival when it came to taking advantage of those miscues, primarily because of its inability to protect Howell. But even though he was forced to run for his life most of the night, the freshman quarterback still managed to make the most of his 10 completions, throwing for 227 yards and two touchdowns.
“Sam is a playmaker and a gamer,” said senior left tackle Charlie Heck. “He’s come out every game and led us, and tonight he led us to a win. I could not be prouder of him.”
But on this night of redemption, Howell had to take a back seat to another hero.
And not just Surratt.
Kicker Noah Ruggles was benched in place of freshman walkon Jonathan Kim on Saturday after missing two potential game-winning field goals in last week’s six-overtime loss at Virginia Tech.
But in a move Brown said was made by “the seat of the pants,” Ruggles was given his job back in the second half. With winning results.
He tied the game with a 34-yard field goal late in the third quarter, then provided UNC with its winning margin with a 40-yarder right down the middle with seven minutes remaining.
“I knew if I could just keep my head down and wait for my opportunity, I’d be ready,” Ruggles said.
Because both he and Surratt made the most of their opportunities, the Victory Bell is back in the Tar Heels’ possession for the first time in four years.
“I wanted to be the first one over there,” Heck said. “I sprinted right over there and grabbed the bell. It got a little heavy as people started sitting on it. But it was such a good feeling. This is why you play football.”