North Carolina beat San Diego State on Saturday night. As always, though, there are many, many stories about the game that didn’t make the final story.
Here are some of those stories:
THE PLAY THAT SEALED IT, IN TIM SCOTT’S WORDS
In a lot of ways it had been a long, miserable game for the UNC defense. As miserable as it could have been, maybe, outside of Brian Walker’s 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter, and outside of another Walker interception in the fourth.
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“Our defense played great at times,” Tim Scott, the senior safety, said. “And played very bad at times.”
And here was the Tar Heels’ defense in the final moments, needing one last play. And here was the San Diego State offense, needing one last play to win the game.
You know how it ended. Quinn Kaehler, the San Diego State quarterback, took a snap on the UNC 3-yard line, less than 20 seconds left, and looked for an open receiver. There was one, for an instant, but Kaehler was late. He threw toward the left corner of the end zone, and Scott jumped in front of it, catching the pass before his momentum took him out of bounds.
Afterward, Scott described the play.
“Coach called man coverage – press man coverage on the goal line, at the 3-yard line … and the receivers called a pick play,” he said. “They called a pick communication, and I knew that he was going to do a wheel ...”
He knew, he said, because the UNC offense runs a similar play with similar movement – receivers crossing and setting a pick. Scott and Des Lawrence, the cornerback, had seen this before.
Amid the familiar, they communicated. For a moment, though, there was a window.
“That’s what the pick play is about,” Scott said. “The quarterback I guess didn’t throw it right away because the pressure was in his face, I guess. But when I got to my spot I looked back and the ball was there.”
And then it was in his hands, and clutched against his chest. He stood up with it then, and raced toward midfield, holding it while the people cheered and while his teammates crowded around him.
Outside of a few plays, this wasn’t a great game for the UNC defense, or even a good one. It allowed 504 yards. It allowed the Aztecs, in the final minutes, to drive from their own 25-yard line to the UNC 3.
And then it was over, the Aztecs’ hopes of an upset dying in Scott’s grasp.
“Emotional,” he said afterward, describing what the moment had been like. “We played our butts off this game, and to know that it ended in a last play to where we sealed the deal, and not where the other team sealed the day – it’s very emotional.”
HOW ELIJAH HOOD WILL REMEMBER HIS FIRST TOUCHDOWN
Maybe it wasn’t exactly how he envisioned it. Maybe he imagined some kind of long run, or one in which he’d go through a few defenders – like he did that one time during his first college game, against Liberty, and like so many times in high school.
Elijah Hood’s first college touchdown wasn’t one for the highlight reel. But you always remember your first touchdown. And how will Hood remember this – his 2-yard run with about eight minutes to play in the fourth quarter on Saturday night?
He’ll remember it most, he said, because “it got us the lead.”
“And we ended up winning the game by such a close margin,” Hood said. “I think that played a big part in that. So it’s one to remember. But I’m planning on trying to just get more.”
Hood, the former standout at Charlotte Catholic High, arrived at UNC one of the most heralded prospects in the nation. He ran through a helpless defender in his first game, against Liberty last week, and then ran through the San Diego State defense to give the Tar Heels the lead for good on Saturday night.
He finished with a modest 26 yards on eight carries. But with the knowledge, too, that his first college touchdown was an important one. It gave UNC a 28-27 lead, and the Tar Heels held on.
“We’d been crawling and scratching to get that lead,” Hood said.
In the same way, he did those things to get into the end zone.
Just a simple 2-yard touchdown run. There will be more aesthetic runs.
“I expect to be a playmaker,” he said later. “So you can expect some more exciting plays out of me.”
MACK HOLLINS AND THE LONGEST UNC PASSING TOUCHDOWN IN KENAN HISTORY
I wrote that story that came out on Saturday about some of the guys who arrived at UNC as walk-ons. Mack Hollins was featured in that story.
Something that didn’t make the story but was interesting: When Hollins arrived at UNC from Fork Union Military Academy, Larry Fedora, the Tar Heels coach, thought Hollins might be in line to become a deep snapper.
“I mean, I had no idea that he could run like he could run,” Fedora said last week.
Now everyone knows. Hollins’ 91-yard touchdown reception early in the fourth quarter changed the momentum. The Tar Heels were still losing at the time, 24-21, but now for the first time since Walker’s 100-yard interception return for a touchdown, the momentum clearly felt in UNC’s favor.
Hollins described the 91-yard touchdown like this:
“I got moved over to the right side. We lined up three by one, I was by myself. ( Marquise Williams) was, his read is if the safety doesn’t come over to help the corner, throw it up. Safety, he didn’t come over, he threw it, and I just ran as fast as I could and got to it.
“And then it was just a race from there. And I won.”
What did Hollins see when the pass was in the air, coming his way? Did it look on target? Too far or too short?
“Well, I just read the corner,” Hollins said. “When I see the corner’s eyes open up, I know the ball is coming to me. So I always run a few more steps, because I know that ball is not going to be right there. So I run a little farther and I turn and I said, oh wow – I have to speed up. So I just put my head down, and I really dug it out. And I look up again and it’s a catchable ball.”
And so did the pass hit him in stride, clean on the run?
“Yeah,” Hollins said. “I almost fell.”
He didn’t, though. He scored on a 91-yard touchdown. It was the longest UNC passing touchdown in Kenan Stadium history.
When he was in high school, Hollins never received any recruiting interest from UNC or from any other school, he said. He had no scholarship offers from any school, he said. No real recruiting mail. Now he’s a part of the school record book.
For that story I wrote, I spent some time talking with Hollins about his journey. About going unnoticed in high school. About winding up at Fork Union. About how he sent out emails, himself, that started out, “Hey, I’m Mack Hollins,” and then included links to his clips of his highlights.
That was a highlight on Saturday night. He thought about his journey again.
“It means that my journey is still going,” he said. “It’s still getting better. It’s getting better and better.”
He thought about what he saw when he crossed the goal line.
“Awesome,” he said. “I could just see the student section erupt. And I turn around and you see – I mean, even in the Blue Zone, I know it’s supposed to be the old people, the people that aren’t rowdy. They were as rowdy as I’ve ever seen.”
• Walker wasn’t made available to media members afterward. Coach’s decision. His 100-yard interception return for a touchdown was UNC’s first 100-yard interception return for a touchdown since 1994, and the third in school history.
It was unclear why Walker wasn’t made available. Whether it was a form of punishment stemming from his one-game suspension for a violation of team policies, or whether it was meant to shield him from questions about his suspension.
Walker and three teammates – Des Lawrence, Donnie Miles and M.J. Stewart – were suspended for the Liberty game while UNC investigates an off-campus altercation at the Aloft hotel. Eventually, those players who were suspended will have to answer questions about what happened.
If not now, then sometime. And the longer they’re not made available, the longer the story will drag out.
• Williams had some good, funny lines about that 91-yard pass to Hollins. I asked him if, during that play, he was thinking about the passes he under-threw against Liberty – ones that led to two interceptions.
“It was in my mind a lot, because I knew I had to throw the ball to Mack because he can fly,” Williams said. “And I knew I could not under-throw it, because I was going to take my own self out if I under-threw that ball.”
And so did Williams put everything he had on that throw?
“No, no,” Williams said. “I could have skyrocketed that one. But I gave him a chance.”
Andrew Carter is the UNC athletics beat reporter for The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer. Follow him on Twitter at @_andrewcarter .