R.L. Bynum, Correspondent
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina has been hurt by mediocre quarterback play all season.
For the second time this year, a true freshman came off the bench, provided a spark and gave the Tar Heels hope — only to get hurt.
Just like in the Virginia Tech game, Nathan Elliott — who was pulled in the first half after suffering through his worst start since the opener against California — returned, endured boos and made it a competitive game as UNC rallied from an 18-point deficit.
And for the third time in four weeks, the Tar Heels fell short in a game that they had a decent chance to win, falling 38–28 Saturday at Kenan Stadium to Georgia Tech for their fifth consecutive loss to fall to 1–7.
Jace Ruder, just like Cade Fortin against Virginia Tech, showed that one day, the Tar Heels’ outlook at quarterback should be bright with two talented true freshman quarterbacks.
This was not the day.
“It’s frustrating,” UNC coach Larry Fedora said.
“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 position where they can help the football team. And they got out there, doing a good job and, unfortunately, they didn’t make it through the game.”
That’s Fedora-speak for “they got injured.”
If Elliott had just returned in the second half with the steady play that has marked his game since the four-interception outing at Cal, UNC might have won.
Instead, he threw two gut-wrenching interceptions on throws that never should have been made.
“Coaches can’t take responsibility for these losses,” said Elliott, who was 14 of 26 for 128 yards and three interceptions.
“I take full responsibility for these losses. I take full responsibility for this one. We have to make plays. I’ve got to make plays and do a better job.”
Throwing it away
Elliott extended his school-record streak of pass attempts within one season without an interception to 219 before throwing one in the first half.
That one probably led to him to going to the bench.
The two fourth-quarter interceptions sealed the defeat.
“One of them, the safety — I don’t even know where he came from — I had a guy open and he came out of nowhere and got the ball,” Elliott said.
“The other one, a defensive lineman was rushing, ends up peeling off the right place at the right time.”
Put me in Coach
Fedora said that he had planned to play Ruder, who got his first shot with the offense stagnant in the second quarter.
With four games left, he could play the rest of the season and not lose his redshirt.
With Fortin’s prospects, why not? It made sense.
But after enduring a hard hit on his left side while engineering a drive that culminated with his first career touchdown pass, his day was done.
“He rode over that linebacker’s arm,” UNC running back Michael Carter, who rushed for 77 yards, said of Ruder’s physical 13-yard third-quarter run that left a defender hurt and needing medical attention.
“Jace is almost 230. He’s a beast. I thought he played well. I thought he played tough. I thought he showed a lot of heart.”
Elliott’s throwing arm, and shaky accuracy at times, doesn’t provide a consistent deep threat.
Ruder isn’t known for his arm, but as a dual threat he forces opponents to respect his running ability.
He immediately energized the rushing game.
To that point, UNC had negative rushing yards.
The Tar Heels rushed for 49 in Ruder’s first drive until a wildcat play with a direct snap to Anthony Ratliff-Williams went for a 4-yard loss to snuff the drive that ended with a field goal.
“I thought he did a good job of handling the situation,” Fedora said.
“I thought he was well-prepared mentally. I thought he did a nice job physically. I thought he may have been a little bit too physical.
“If I could have had that back, I would have gotten him to go down or slide in that situation. But you hate to take away a guy’s aggressiveness. He’s devastated right now but he’ll bounce back and he’ll be fine.”
Since the Cal game, Elliott has averaged one yard or less per carry.
Ruder averaged seven yards per run Saturday.
Three plays after apparently hurting his left arm, the first career touchdown pass for the right-handed Ruder was a 9-yard third-quarter strike to Carl Tucker.
MASH unit on the scene
One of the first to congratulate him on the sideline was Fortin, who was out of uniform, wearing sweatpants with a brace on his injured right knee.
Later in the second half, Ruder would join him on the sideline, sporting a sling on his left arm.
“He showed he can make plays whenever his name is called,” said UNC running back Antonio Williams, who rushed for 40 yards.
Ruder finished 4 of 5 passing for 80 yards and a touchdown, while running for 21 yards.
His only incompletion was a throw that should have been caught by Ratliff-Williams.
“It’s very unlucky, man,” Williams said.
“It’s unfortunate. But the good thing is knowing we have those guys on our team.”
Next man up?
Where UNC stands at quarterback for its last three regular-season games is anybody’s guess, particularly because the coaching staff doesn’t talk about injuries.
Fortin lightly practiced with a yellow jersey last week, so there’s no telling how soon he’ll be back.
Will he be back this season? Will Ruder?
“I think they are what we expected of them,” Fedora said.
“I think both kids are going to grow, and they are going to get better at everything they do. The experience that they’ve had has been good for them.”
Now, he just must hope that the result at Duke next Saturday can finally be good for the reeling Tar Heels.
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