It was a night to remember, and one that had been a long time coming, for Elijah Hood, the North Carolina sophomore running back.
When given the chance Thursday during the Tar Heels’ season-opening 17-13 loss against South Carolina in the Belk College Kickoff, Hood, playing in his hometown of Charlotte, made the most of it. He ran for a career-high 138 yards. He averaged 11.5 yards per carry.
At times Hood ran through hapless opposing defenders, as he was known to do as a high school standout at Charlotte Catholic. In other moments Hood eluded the defense and created separation with his speed.
And yet in other moments, some of the most critical of the game, Hood found himself on the sideline, only able to watch while the Tar Heels squandered chance after chance. The Tar Heels’ use of Hood inside South Carolina’s 20-yard line – or, rather, UNC’s decision not to use Hood there – was the most confounding part of a defeat defined by missed opportunities.
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Three times, the Tar Heels drove inside the Gamecocks’ 20-yard line. Those three drives resulted in three points – on a 38-yard field goal from Nick Weiler – and none of Hood’s 12 carries came after UNC reached the red zone.
Larry Fedora, in his fourth season as the Tar Heels’ coach, offered something of a strange explanation when asked after the game why Hood wasn’t a more prominent part of the offense the closer his team drove to the end zone.
“We got behind the chains,” Fedora said, using football-specific jargon to say his offense lost yardage and faced unfavorable down and distances that precluded Hood’s involvement. “On every drive we had down there we just got behind the chains and didn’t get it done.”
That’s not exactly what happened, though. UNC lost yards on only two of its plays in the red zone – both on sacks on third down. After both sacks, Williams threw an interception in the end zone on fourth down.
The second of those interceptions came on the Tar Heels’ final drive, with UNC trailing by four points in the final minutes. Hood on that drive received one carry but made the most of it, and gained 29 yards to give UNC a first down on the South Carolina 23-yard line.
It turned out to be Hood’s final carry of the game. He stood on the sideline, appearing preparing to re-enter the game, when the Tar Heels later had a 1st-and-goal from the 9-yard line. From there, T.J. Logan ran for no gain and Williams ran for 6 yards before he was sacked and threw the interception.
“I mean, that’s up to the coaches to decide which person they want to put in,” Hood said.
Hood and Logan, a junior, both said during the preseason that at times it has been difficult to discover their rhythm given the way UNC has rotated running backs in recent years. The last time a UNC running back received 20 carries in a game was in 2012, with Giovani Bernard.
Hood and Logan, meanwhile, combined for 19 carries Thursday night. Combined, they averaged 9.2 yards per carry.
Still, the offense relied most on Williams, who attempted 31 passes. Even though he was sacked four times and under pressure throughout, and even though Williams had already thrown two interceptions, Fedora and his coaching staff turned to the passing game – and not the run – when they most needed to score.
The plan backfired. Fedora afterward said he would have preferred for Hood to receive more work.
“With the way he ran tonight, I’d like to see him get more carries, totally, wherever they are,” Fedora said when asked if he wanted to see more prominent use of Hood in the red zone. “But yeah. If we felt like tonight we could have just stuck it in his hand and let him go and he would have scored, then I’m sure that’s what they would have called.”
Fedora’s answer was indicative of the autonomy he provides Seth Littrell, the offensive coordinator who is in his second year at UNC. It is Littrell, and not Fedora, who is responsible for the play-calling on offense.
Before the season, Littrell set a goal for UNC to generate at least 200 yards rushing per game. The Tar Heels accomplished that Thursday – they ran for 208 yards – and Hood, healthy after enduring injuries during his freshman season, showed why he entered the season as the starter.
Yet in the most decisive moments of a critically-important season-opener for UNC, Littrell went away from the player who’d had the most success against South Carolina’s defense. Hood ran for more yards than he ever had in a college game, but none of them came all that close to the Gamecocks’ goal line.