North Carolina has tried to turn to its quarterback of the future, whomever that might be, whether it’s sophomore Chazz Surratt, freshmen Cade Fortin, and most recently, Jace Ruder.
But each time, fate has intervened, and UNC (1-7, 1-5 ACC) has had to rely on junior quarterback Nathan Elliott, who has proven he is not the answer. And so it was again on Saturday, during a 38-28 defeat to Georgia Tech, that UNC suffered yet another setback to a season that has had many lows and an insufficient number of highs.
For the season, Elliott is averaging 205 yards per game and is completing 60 percent of his passes. But he also has 8 touchdowns to 7 interceptions.
Elliott was replaced in the second quarter of Saturday’s game by Ruder, a true freshman, who made his season debut.
Ruder, who is 6-2, 220 pounds played well. He was 4-5 for 80 yards and a touchdown pass.
He also had three rushes for 21 yards. But on his final rush, he was hit hard, and appeared to grab his shoulder. He got up slowly, and on the next play and threw a 44-yard pass to Anthony Ratliff-Williams at the Georgia Tech 6-yard-line. Three plays later, he threw a nine-yard touchdown pass to junior tight end Carl Tucker, which helped jump start the Tar Heels’ comeback attempt.
But after the first touchdown of his college career, Ruder did not return. He went back into the locker room, and when he emerged, he had a sling on his left (non-throwing) arm.
When Elliott returned to the game to replace Ruder, the crowd booed, perhaps not knowing Ruder was injured. Elliott managed to help UNC tie the game in the fourth quarter. But he was not good enough to help the Tar Heels win. He threw two critical interceptions late in the fourth quarter. The score was tied at 28 on the first fourth quarter interception, with 8:07 left in the game. The other occurred when the Tar Heels were down 35-28 with 2:53 left.
Both happened in UNC territory and Georgia Tech (5-4, 3-3) scored 10 points off those turnovers, which turned out to be the difference in the 38-28 loss.
“I take responsibility for this one,” Elliott said after the game. “We’ve got to make plays. Our players have to make plays. I’ve got to make plays. I’ve got to do a better job.”
Ruder became the third UNC quarterback to go down with an injury this season after relieving Elliott. Surratt re-injured his wrist on Sept. 27 against Miami. He is officially out for the season. Fortin, who showed promise in his lone start, injured his knee on Oct. 13 against Virginia Tech when he tried to run for a touchdown. He too was hit hard. But he stayed on the ground and did not return to the game.
And now Ruder, whose only incomplete pass on Saturday was a drop by junior wide receiver Anthony Ratliff-Williams, is hurt.
“If I could have that back I would get him to go down or slide in that situation, but you hate to take away a guy’s aggressiveness,” Fedora said. “He’s devastated right now, but he’ll bounce back.”
When asked had he ever had three quarterbacks go down in one season like this, Fedora couldn’t recall.
He said the injuries to his young quarterbacks are frustrating, but it’s part of the game.
“We worked hard with those young guys, and both of them have worked extremely hard to put themselves in a position where they could help the football team,” Fedora said. “And they got out there and they were doing a good job, and unfortunately they didn’t make it through the game.”
Fedora said his options at quarterback are now Elliott, senior walk-on Manny Miles, and Ratliff-Williams, who entered UNC as a quarterback, but later converted to wide receiver. He is also its leading receiver.
Ratliff-Williams is 3-6 for 86 yards passing and two passing touchdowns in his career. All three of his completions and his two touchdowns came last season. He is 0-2 passing this season.
Miles has thrown one pass in his two seasons at UNC. It was a five yard completion in 2017.
“The next guys step up and got to get it done,” Fedora said.