In the days after North Carolina's season-opening 17-13 defeat against South Carolina last Thursday the most confounding question amid a confounding loss has been this: Where was Elijah Hood, the sophomore running back, on the final plays of UNC's final possession?
Larry Fedora, in his fourth season as the Tar Heels' coach, was still trying to answer that question during his weekly press conference on Monday. And, as was the case after the defeat, Fedora's answers on Monday created more questions.
Hood ran for a career-high 138 yards against South Carolina. He averaged 11.5 yards per carry.
Yet Hood was on the sideline, watching, while UNC ran three plays inside the South Carolina 9-yard line in the final minutes. The Tar Heels needed a touchdown then to take the lead.
First-and-goal turned to second-and-goal, and then UNC had a third-and-goal at the 3. Hood never entered the game. Was he surprised, Hood was asked on Monday?
“Um,” he said, dragging out the syllable. “I mean ...”
He paused and smiled, and then laughed, not really knowing what to say.
“No, I wasn't too surprised,” he said. “There were times in the (preseason) scrimmage where I would get down the field and I would get subbed out because there are certain plays that we have in the red zone, where guys like T.J. (Logan) or Romar (Morris) are in because of the swing routes and the spacing and stuff.”
Fedora last Thursday said Hood wasn't in the game because the Tar Heels “got behind the chains.” Fedora changed course on Monday and said the Tar Heels' fast pace on offense precluded Hood from reentering the game after he left following a 29-yard run with six minutes to play.
“We were in the hurry-up mode at that point,” Fedora said of when the Tar Heels had the first-and-goal at the 9-yard-line. “And we didn’t get (Hood) in the game.”
UNC, though, substituted on consecutive plays on that final set of downs. Before facing a second-and-goal from the 9, Morris, the senior running back, entered the game for Ryan Switzer, the junior receiver. On the next play Switzer came back in for Morris.
Hood, meanwhile, appeared ready on the sideline. Before UNC's third-and-goal play from the 3-yard line, Hood began to take a few steps onto the field.
Larry Porter, the UNC running backs coach, grabbed Hood's jersey and pulled him back to the sideline. On that third down play, the Gamecocks sacked quarterback Marquise Williams, setting up a fourth-and-goal from the 8. Williams then threw his third interception – and second in the end zone.
Hood was in the game for that play, after UNC had called a timeout before fourth down. Before that, though, Hood had been waiting for a moment that never came.
“I had thought I had been called in, but I guess it turns out I just misheard that,” Hood said on Monday. “I think it was just the tempo we were running, and there were certain play calls in. So they were just going to run what they had and that was going to be it.”
Fedora emphasized on Monday that clarity comes with hindsight. The plays that UNC ran late in its final possession hadn't been scripted, he said, but they were plays that the Tar Heels had rehearsed over and over to prepare for the situation in which they found themselves on Thursday night.
“You could do a lot of things,” Fedora said. “But that’s not what we did. We went into a hurry mode and we don’t substitute in that situation. If it would’ve been successful, we wouldn’t be talking about these things.”
That Fedora on Monday found himself explaining his team's final possession is indicative of the controversy that has surrounded UNC's late-game play-calling and personnel decisions. The failures, though, resulted as much from a lack of execution as anything else.
That was a theme for UNC during its three trips inside the Gamecocks' 20-yard line. The Tar Heels scored just three points off of those three possessions, and two of them ended with Williams throwing interceptions in the end zone.
“All three of them, not good things,” Fedora said of the interceptions.
But UNC's running game, and especially Hood, did make good things happen. Hood in the second half for for 118 yards.
He ran for 44 yards on one play in the third quarter, and then ran for 29 more to move UNC well into South Carolina territory with six minutes to play. As it turned out, that was Hood's final carry of the game. Hood on Monday said he was “a little fatigued” after that run, but that he only would have needed a couple of plays to rest.
Asked if he could take solace in the way he played despite the loss, Hood said, “I really can't.”
“Obviously it wasn't enough to win the game,” he said. “If I had just somehow found a way to beat that safety on that one run or something – there's always something more you can do to improve your game. Because we left so many plays out there where we could have just – one play could have been the difference for us.”
Hood never had an opportunity to make one more play after that final 29-yard run. He never touched the ball again, and he was on the sideline, watching, while the Tar Heels ran some of their most important plays.
Fedora on Monday was careful not to blame the loss on the decision to keep Hood on the sideline in the final moments of UNC's final drive. Had Williams' final pass gone for a touchdown instead of an interception, Fedora noted more than once, Hood's absence wouldn't have been an issue.
Even so, in defeat he might have gained a better appreciation for Hood. UNC during the past two seasons hasn't often made a running back the focal point of its offense. Fedora indicated that might change.
“If he’s healthy and running well and productive, then we need to get the ball to him more,” Fedora said of Hood. “There’s no doubt.”