CHAPEL HILL—It all seemed lost. 

Ahead 10-3 with less than a minute left in the first half, Duke had the ball at North Carolina’s six-yard line and had a chance to take a two-touchdown lead heading into the break.

But the next 30 seconds made it seem like it was all going to fall apart. 

After stuffing the Blue Devils on third down, the Tar Heels blocked Austin Parker’s short field-goal attempt and needed just two plays to get into the end zone to tie Duke 10-10 at the half. 

Those two deep balls from quarterback Chazz Surratt to Anthony Ratliff-Williams for 45 and 35 yards seemed to suck all the air out of the Blue Devils, which scuffled for most of the second half before marching back late in the fourth quarter for a 27-17 win. 

Duke had outplayed North Carolina for the first 30 minutes, outrushing the Tar Heels 119-22 and giving up just four completions—but three of them went for 35 or more yards. Although they didn’t stop them from winning in the end, big plays continued to haunt the Blue Devils’ otherwise stout defense, which was No. 1 in the nation in rushing yards allowed and defensive efficiency before Saturday.

“A couple times, they just made plays,” Duke cornerback Byron Fields Jr. said. “One I gave up, that can’t happen. I have to make a better play on the ball. Other times, it was miscommunications. They were going to make plays, and we knew that going in. But luckily, we were able to rebound and make some plays of our own.”

But the Blue Devils flipped the script in the fourth quarter, finding life on offense with a 45-yard strike to T.J. Rahming to set up Shaun Wilson’s go-ahead touchdown run. It was Duke’s longest passing play in two weeks.

“With T.J.’s speed, we felt that he might get on top of the man-to-man defender,” head coach David Cutcliffe said. “There’s a time to take a shot. There is a time, particularly when you have a player that you trust. Obviously, Chazz Surratt trusts Ratliff. It’s no different.”

On the defensive end, the Blue Devils buckled down on North Carolina’s last five drives and limited the Tar Heel offense, not allowing a gain of 25 or more yards.

The Blue Devils had not yet seen a quarterback quite like the dual-threat Surratt this year—Northwestern’s Clayton Thorson wasn’t quite as mobile, and Baylor’s Zach Smith is a prototypical pocket passer—something Fields said took time to adjust to. 

“The defensive line and the linebackers just had to be more aware,” Fields said. “The last couple weeks, we hadn’t played running quarterbacks. It was an adjustment, especially from last week. 

“He made a lot of plays, which is going to happen. He was able to make some plays, but we were able to rebound and make some plays of our own.... The defensive line stepped up on him and chased him out of there. Their pursuit and the coverage downfield really helped out.” 

In the first half, the same issues recurred that did against the Bears a week ago, when Duke gave up 238 of Smith’s 263 passing yards on just five plays. Surratt had just four completions in the first half, but still managed to amass 134 passing yards.

Explosive plays continued to hurt Duke on the ground as well, with Surratt running free for a 56-yard touchdown with a little more than five minutes left in the third quarter that put the Blue Devils in a 17-13 hole. 

Cutcliffe said Surratt’s athleticism left him with no choice but to make adjustments.

“We tried to keep linebackers in the box,” Cutcliffe said. “Maybe we did a little more straight-line rush. He was faster today than what I expected today. I know he’s a good athlete, but he played really well.”

However, star linebacker Ben Humphreys’ uncertain status heading into Friday’s home matchup against Miami complicates things for the Blue Devils. Humphreys limped off the field after being hit with a chop block late in the fourth quarter—the All-ACC junior had two tackles for loss against the Tar Heels and has 16 tackles on the season.

That could put more pressure on the secondary come later this week. But Saturday, Fields was the beneficiary of the increased focus on Surratt, picking off his pass when North Carolina was driving for a potential game-tying field goal or go-ahead touchdown and running it 61 yards back to the end zone to seal the victory late in the fourth quarter. 

“It was a huge play for us. Shoutout to the defensive line,” Fields said. “I had faith in the defense—someone was going to make a play, and it just happened to be me.”