Elijah Hood could feel the difference on Saturday when he made his first move, a quick cut against Georgia Tech that preceded a 45-yard run that foreshadowed what was to come. It was early still, but Hood felt like himself again, in part because other players appeared more sluggish in comparison.
“When I made the cut,” Hood said, “I felt like everyone felt a lot slower than they did before. I was like, ‘OK, this is a good thing.’ I could do even more than what I was doing before. At that point, I was going to feed into that energy.”
Moments later the North Carolina junior’s third carry ended in the end zone, a 1-yard touchdown that provided the Tar Heels (7-2, 5-1 ACC) with the first points of their 48-20 victory. It was a triumph defined by offensive precision, and dominance, and that dominance was possible in large part because Hood, at last, is healthy.
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He said he was earlier in the week. UNC coach Larry Fedora said the same.
And yet, Hood needed to prove it on Saturday, needed to play, for his sake, like he so often did a season ago. His success then, when he ran for nearly 1,500 yards and once warned opposing players that they’d “better bring their buddies” to tackle him, led to the assumption that greater things were ahead.
It was, the thought went, supposed to be relatively easy for Hood during his junior season. Instead, UNC coach Larry Fedora said the past two and a half months had “been frustrating for him, mentally.”
“Because he hasn’t been at 100 percent,” Fedora said, “so he hasn’t done the things that he really wants to do.”
At least not until Saturday. The positives were many for the 18th-ranked Tar Heels. They gained 636 yards, which surpassed their previous season high, set against James Madison, by 1 yard. UNC ran for 283 yards, its most since amassing 374 rushing yards at N.C. State last November.
The Tar Heels’ defense helped turn the game with fumble recoveries on consecutive drives late in the third quarter and early in the fourth. On special teams, UNC blocked a field goal for the third time this season.
Hood’s performance, though, might have represented UNC’s greatest victory within the victory. By the end of the first quarter, he’d already run for 114 yards – a season high. He finished with 168 yards, and it might have been more had the goal line not stopped two of his carries after short touchdown runs.
“That’s the Elijah we expect to see out there,” said Mitch Trubisky, the junior quarterback who passed for 329 yards and a touchdown, and also ran for an 18-yard touchdown. “And it’s good to see him back healthy and running wild.”
The “wild,” as Trubisky described it, had been missing from Hood’s arsenal. He seemed slower during the first several games of the season, when various undisclosed injuries nagged at him. Then he endured a concussion in a dramatic victory at Florida State.
That injury forced him to miss the Tar Heels’ following game, against Virginia Tech, and when he returned the next week at Miami he gained 31 yards on 13 carries. Two weeks ago at Virginia, Hood, a former standout at Charlotte Catholic High, felt well enough to run for 107 yards – a preview of what was to come on Saturday.
Still, his recovery progressed slowly. UNC’s off weekend last week helped.
“It’s just time, and rest,” Hood said of the factors that allowed him to reach the point he did on Saturday. “Treatment. You always do treatment. Just sometimes things just take time to heal up.”
It wasn’t happenstance that UNC’s most balanced offensive performance coincided with Hood’s return to form. Bug Howard, the senior receiver, benefited from Hood’s improved health, especially. Howard finished with six receptions for 120 yards – his third consecutive 100-yard game.
More than half of Howard’s receiving yards came on a 68-yard touchdown reception late in the second quarter. At the time, the Yellow Jackets (5-4, 2-4) might have been focused on halting the Tar Heels’ rushing offense, which wouldn’t have been an out-of-place thought given Hood’s early success.
Howard said Hood “got a chance to get his mojo back” on Saturday. And that mojo trickled down.
“It gives the defense a different look,” Howard said, “and that forces the defense on the back end, the safeties, to have to come up and fill the boxes. So that allows the receivers on the outside to be one-on-one coverage, basically having to take one of the safeties down to try to come fill the gap.”
The Tar Heels exploited the coverage. And if the pass wasn’t there, the run often was. UNC had 11 possessions on Saturday. Halftime ended one, and the end of the game ended another. Eight of the other nine possessions ended in points, and the Tar Heels punted once.
Hood, meanwhile, experienced what he hadn’t to this point: the satisfaction of playing to his potential. It had been a long time coming. For him, the most difficult part of the first two months of the season, he said, was “knowing that I could do better.”
It was knowing that if only he’d heal he could do what he did on Saturday, at last.