(NDNation.com by John Vannie)
North Carolina came from behind with a dominant second half to defeat Notre Dame 29-24 on Saturday in Chapel Hill.
The Tar Heels once trailed 17-6, but they turned up the defensive intensity and forced four second-half turnovers on their way to a hard-fought victory.
The final Irish possession ended deep inside Carolina territory when Michael Floyd caught a pass and fumbled the ball away as he was tackled with two seconds to play.
The game was an entertaining exchange of counterpunches and featured several changes in momentum.
The day began well for the visitors, however, as they scored on three of four first-half possessions.
Jimmy Clausen threw a perfect 19-yard sideline strike to Golden Tate to open the scoring and tossed a seven-yard touchdown pass to Michael Floyd with under a minute left in the half.
Brandon Walker also connected on his only field goal try of the day, a 42-yard effort early in the second period.
Meanwhile, North Carolina moved the ball well and stayed in the game despite the fact that they could not find the end zone.
In a key sequence after Floyd’s catch extended the Irish lead to 17-6, Cam Sexton moved the Tar Heels down the field quickly with passes to Hakeem Nicks.
By covering more than 40 yards in the final 45 seconds of the half, Carolina was able to set up a third Casey Barth field goal with nine seconds left.
Notre Dame fumbled the ensuing kickoff and Barth tried again from 53 yards, but came up just short.
Still, the half ended on a sour note for the Irish, and the Tar Heels were within one score despite Clausen’s impressive passing numbers.
Things changed in a hurry after intermission. Linebacker Quan Sturdivant stepped in front of Clausen’s first pass of the third quarter and returned it 32 yards for a touchdown to pull the hosts within 17-16.
Notre Dame was ready to surrender the ball on the next series after a three-and-out, but the Tar Heels roughed up punter Eric Maust to give the Irish 15 yards and a first down.
Clausen took advantage of the second chance and eventually hit Duval Kamara on a key third-down pass inside the Carolina 10.
James Aldridge finished the drive by plowing into the end zone from two yards out. Notre Dame led 24-16, but there were still nearly 11 minutes left in the third period.
The game turned toward the Tar Heels on the ensuing possession. Sexton hit Nicks on third-and-five to keep the chains moving but was sacked by Patrick Kuntz on the next series.
Facing third-and-18, everyone knew Sexton would be looking for Nicks again since star receiver and return man Brandon Tate left the game in the first quarter with a knee injury.
Nicks still managed to get open against the inexplicably soft Irish secondary, and he got just enough yardage to make the first down near midfield.
Carolina seized the opportunity and marched quickly into the end zone with an effective array of runs and passes. Although the failed two-point conversion left them down by 24-22, the Heels clearly had the momentum.
Notre Dame began another march as Clausen hit Robert Hughes in the flat for 15 yards, but the Tar Heel defense rose up again.
Reserve tackle Al Mullins beat Irish center Dan Wenger and stripped the ball from Clausen in the pocket. Mullins pounced on it and Carolina was in business at the Notre Dame 42.
Tailback Shaun Draughn appeared to score from 35 yards out only two plays later, but the play was called back for a holding penalty.
This proved to be only a temporary relief for the gassed Irish defense. Sexton dove in on a rollout a few plays later to give Carolina its first lead of the day at 29-24 as the game moved to the fourth quarter.
The Irish may have been rattled after being outscored by 20-7 in just over 15 minutes, but Clausen kept his cool.
He hit Floyd for 24 yards and tossed a screen pass to Allen for 14 more. The drive stalled just outside the Tar Heel 20, however, as a fourth-down pass came up short.
Notre Dame got the ball back with 10 minutes remaining and ripped off three first downs before stopping themselves again. Carolina forced Clausen to scramble and throw another interception, this time to Deunta Williams at the Tar Heel 23 with 4:50 left.
Sexton and Draughn tried to run out the clock, and they were nearly successful. A well-executed third down pass was ruled incomplete with just under two minutes remaining, and the Heels were forced to punt.
It appeared that Carolina’s Brooks Foster caught the ball and the ground caused him to lose it upon impact, but the replay officials ruled in favor of Notre Dame.
Clausen came onto the field with 83 yards between him and Irish immortality, and he almost pulled it off. He started with a 30-yard laser to Tate and picked up two more first downs as time ticked down below a minute.
The Tar Heels applied more pressure and Clausen found himself down to a fourth and 13 with 11 seconds left. A bullet to Floyd would have picked up a first down inside the ten with a chance to run one more play, but Floyd lost the ball as he fought to break free.
The Irish outgained North Carolina by a whopping 472-322 yards, but committed five turnovers to none for the Tar Heels. Notre Dame also could not stop Nicks and Draughn when it mattered most. Nicks had nine catches for 141 yards and ran roughshod over the Irish cornerbacks.
Draughn had 91 yards on only 17 carries, and ran over Maurice Crum and Dan McCarthy for first downs when they came up to meet him in the hole.
Aside from the turnovers, the clear difference between these two young and promising teams is the power and athleticism of the Carolina defense.
Although Notre Dame’s passing attack may be the envy of college football as Clausen matures, the front seven must get help if the Irish are going to contend any time soon.
Here is a review of the key questions that helped to determine the outcome:
Which team will run the ball most effectively?
Carolina outrushed Notre Dame by 121-89, and the important yards came in the second half.
Will Clausen find holes in the aggressive Tar Heel secondary?
Definitely, but he also found Sturdivant at the wrong time.
Will the Irish be able to hold Tate in check?
Mike Anello took care of Tate for the day with a clean tackle on Carolina’s first punt return.
Which kicker will help his team win?
Although Walker made a 42-yarder, Casey Barth had three important field goals for the Heels that kept them in it.
Can the Irish coverage teams stop the Carolina return game?
A good job overall, although Tate’s injury lowered the risk for the Irish.
Will Notre Dame get through another contest without a turnover?
No, no, no, no, no.
Can the Irish force a mediocre Tar Heel offense to score all their points?
The gift touchdown to Sturdivant and the strip/recovery by Mullins in plus territory spelled doom for Notre Dame.
I hate it when I’m right. In the preview for this game, I said, “The Tar Heels are a team that does not look impressive on paper, but they have fewer weaknesses than the Irish and can score by several different means.
"In a tight ballgame where a special teams play, turnover or field goal could decide the outcome, the odds are that North Carolina will produce what is needed.”
That’s pretty much the story of this game, and Irish fans are left to stew for two weeks until the next one.
Despite falling to 4-2, the season is far from over. Notre Dame will continue to improve, and every remaining game is quite winnable except the last one in Los Angeles.
First and foremost, this team must break through on the road against lowly Washington. Nothing less than a solid performance in all phases of the game should be expected.
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