CHAPEL HILL — North Carolina’s injury adventures finally hit the quarterback position hard just when the defense came up with its best game of the season.
With Brandon Harris already out with a sore shoulder and Chazz Surratt done for the day after taking a hit in the first quarter, the Tar Heels handed the controls to Nathan Elliott. Coach Larry Fedora said that Surratt, who was standing on the sideline with his helmet on, could “probably” have gone back in.
Nonetheless, depending on a third-string quarterback, Carolina was in the game until the end before the last of four damaging turnovers sealed a 24–19 loss to No. 8 and undefeated Miami.
It was a frustrating loss. But the word “fun” came up a lot as the left-handed Elliott answered questions about the first significant playing time of the 6-1 sophomore’s career.
“I was just really excited for the opportunity,” said Elliott, who knew that he entered the game as Surratt’s backup. “It’s great to be out there with the guys. I haven’t had many reps previous to this. But being back out there, it’s a lot of fun. It was a lot of fun today.”
When he finally got his chance to play an important snap, his first play was quite dramatic. He was on the receiving end of an Anthony Ratliff-Williams 33-yard pass on a trick play rather than throwing a pass.
“That was fun,” said Elliott, who later couldn’t make the catch on a similar play. “That was awesome. The first one, I wish I would have scored. I think I should have scored but the second one didn’t go as well. That’s a fun play to run for sure.
“I felt very confident today, especially after that first play,” he said. “That’s a fun way to start the game and get the nerves out right away. I felt good, settled in. After I got hit a couple of times, I always feel a little better.”
If hits got him settled, there were no issues there. He was sacked three times and took two crushing hits, including a late hit on the sidelines.
After a serviceable and clean performance in the first half, he had four incompletions and three interceptions (including two on back-to-back attempts) in a seven-pass second-half stretch that turned the momentum.
Still, Elliott had the chance to engineer a game-winning drive that ended with a fumble from Jordon Brown.
“That’s what I dream about,” said Elliott, who completed 16 of 39 passes for one touchdown in addition to running for 79 yards. “That’s what every little kid that plays football dreams about, having a chance to beat the No. 8 team in the country with two minutes on the clock with the ball, and unfortunately we just came on the other end of that.”
With Harris battling the bad shoulder, Elliott got most of the reps in practice last week that would have gone to Harris. There still was really nothing to indicate going into the game that Elliott would get that much playing time.
“I did have a feeling, I don’t know what it was,” said Elliott, who had not played all season before he was used in mop-up duty during the 59–7 blowout loss at Virginia Tech the week before. “I just had a feeling, man, I know I’m going to play quite a bit this game. It was something, I don’t know what it was. But I just had a feeling I was going to, and I prepared like I was going to and I’m glad I did, obviously.”
If, as Fedora suggested, Surratt could have returned to the game, then the coach liked what he saw. It must have been something he hadn’t seen in practice all season.
“Nathan gave us a spark and was doing well so we didn’t want to make that change,” Fedora said of why Surratt didn’t come back in. “I thought he was really gritty. I thought he went in there and played really tough. … There was one ball that he probably didn’t need to throw that he pressed on. But that kid, with as many reps as he’s gotten, he went out there and I thought he did a heck of a job.”
Not every throw was perfect in the first half, when Elliott completed 10 of 18 passes with no interceptions. He was saved from a pick on a terrific catch by fellow Texan Beau Corrales. Even when Elliott’s fortunes changed in the second half, Fedora stuck with him.
“They got us a couple of times on some good looks that they had for the play we had called and that’s going to happen,” Elliott said. “Obviously, I can’t turn the ball over. If we don’t turn the ball over, we probably win that game.”
Carolina led nearly every statistical category except turnovers and points.
“They’re on me. I’m the one throwing the ball,” he said of the interceptions. “The first one, it was hot off a blitz; just got to get rid of it. The other two, one time he slipped and the other one I didn’t really see what happened. I really don’t know what happened.”
During the preseason, Fedora didn’t want to tip his hand about who he would start in the opener against California and contended until game day that three quarterbacks were competing for the job, including Elliott.
“At the beginning of the season, I thought I had a good chance,” Elliott said. “Obviously, competed in fall camp. Just competed. Did everything I could. Still going to continue to do that.”
Where he goes from here is anybody’s guess. Elliott has no idea what the quarterback situation will be after the Tar Heels take a week off before traveling to Pittsburgh on Nov. 9.
“I’m ready to do whatever they need me to do,” he said. “I don’t know what that looks like. Probably won’t know for a while what that looks like. You have to take the approach of being ready every day because like today, you never know what could happen.”
With this Tar Heels team, now 1–8, there’s no telling who still will be healthy by the time that game rolls around. But if he’s called on again, Elliott will be ready.