In the end, inconsistent pass defense, special teams’ mistakes and several fourth quarter personal foul calls kept UNC (1-8) from having a chance to pull off the biggest upset of the college football season.
“We gave a great effort,” John Bunting said. “I’m always disappointed to lose. I hate losing.”
Several thousand UNC fans booked their trip to college football’s Mecca months ago with high hopes for a competitive contest. And for the most part, the Tar Heels, a team yet to defeat a Division I school this season, didn’t disappoint against heavily favored Notre Dame (8-1).
Carolina enjoyed its highest scoring output of the season since a 45-42 win over Furman on Sept. 16 in Chapel Hill.
“They didn’t beat us; we beat ourselves,” said quarterback Joe Dailey, who gave his best performance in a Tar Heels’ uniform completing 14-of-23 passes for 213 yards and three touchdowns without an interception.
Cam Sexton, per the UNC coaches’ pre-determined rotation pattern, replaced the hot Dailey for two early series.
When asked if he thought about leaving Dailey in the game after he had already thrown for his first score, Bunting simply replied, “Did I think about it? No.”
When Sexton’s turn came back up, Bunting and offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti scrapped the platoon system. Bunting said he’ll make a decision Sunday on the quarterback situation for next week’s game with 20th-ranked Georgia Tech.
Freshman sensation Hakeem Nicks caught six passes for a career-high 171 and two touchdowns. It was the most receiving yards by a UNC freshman ever.
Nicks said, “I wanted to play real hard, because this is a great football program and I wanted to step it up. I expect to play hard every game, and today I was able to make some great plays.”
Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn torched the Tar Heels’ secondary for a season-high 346 yards and four touchdowns.
“Quinn is a hell of a player,” Bunting said. “I knew that coming in.”
Tailback Darius Walker ran for 88 yards as the Irish rolled up 452 yards of total offense.
In a rare occurrence, Carolina stormed out of the locker room at intermission and outscored the Irish 13-7 in the third quarter, on the strength of two Dailey touchdown passes to Nicks – the second a 72-yard hookup that made the game interesting.
Ahead 38-26, Notre Dame converted a key third down on a Quinn sneak. However, on the ensuing play – another rush by Quinn – an Irish lineman was flagged for holding. What happened next would cloud the game with controversy following what Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis called a “marginal” late hit call against UNC linebacker Durell Mapp.
“Honestly, to me it looked good,” Mapp said of the hit on Quinn. “The referees are going to look out for him, because he’s held to such a high standard for being a Heisman candidate. It was a terrible call.”
Then, amongst the pushing and shoving that followed on the Notre Dame sidelines, another personal foul was called against the Tar Heels.
From that point on, Carolina came unglued. From the seven yard line, the Irish took three plays to score on Walker’s one-yard run to lead to the game’s final margin.
“I’ll be very interested to find out more about the melee,” Bunting said. “I want some explanation on that. We did a good job of keeping our guys on our sideline. I’m not sure if their guys stayed on their sideline.
With lightning fast execution and razor sharp precision, the Irish opened the game with a six-play, 65-yard scoring drive capped by a six-yard touchdown pass from Quinn to wide receivers Rhema McKnight. Just 2:03 in, Notre Dame led 7-0, following its quickest scoring drive of the season.
On UNC’s first offensive possession, Dailey was sacked for a nine-yard loss, McGill rushed for five yards and Dailey’s third down pass attempt to Brooks Foster was nearly intercepted. Wooldridge punted and Notre Dame took over 1st-and-10 with still 10:57 of the first quarter clock to work with.
However, the Tar Heels defense answered the challenge this time, as a sack by E.J. Wilson forced the Irish into a three-and-out series.
A 10-yard carry for a first down and later a 35-yard rush for McGill, followed by 21-yard pass to Nicks down to the Notre Dame 12-yard line, put Carolina back in business.
McGill was running like a man possessed and Dailey’s passes were crisp and accurate. Jesse Holley made a circus catch in the front corner of the end zone, as Touchdown Jesus signaled the score from above. Connor Barth converted his 15th extra point conversion in as many tries, and the score was tied 7-7 in front of 80,795 stunned fans.
Carolina fans were jubilant as their defense settled in on a third and 10 near midfield. But Quinn found John Carlson over the middle for 28 yards to the UNC 29. Following a sack by Shelton Bynum, Quinn hooked up with McKnight down to the UNC 13.
Two plays and a Carl Gioia extra point later, and the Irish led 14-0 following an 11-yard touchdown reception by Carlson.
McKnight’s second touchdown reception from 14 yards helped Notre Dame to a 21-7 cushion.
The short-lived fun for Tar Heel fans appeared to have ended with 11:28 to play in the first half.
But after a Gioia’s 27-yard field goal made it 24-7, Brandon Tate scored on a 90-yard kickoff return following a fake reverse to Quentin Person and a nifty spin move away from pursuing tacklers.
Tate’s second-career kickoff return for a touchdown was UNC’s first since Wallace Wright took one all the way back against Boston College last year.
A third down sack forced punter David Wooldridge to kick with his back up in UNC’s end zone, but he managed to drill a 52-yard punt. However returner Tom Zbidowski made a quick move and took the ball to the house, as Notre Dame took a 31-13 lead at the half.
The Tar Heels host the Yellow Jackets (7-2) -- 31-23 winners over N.C. State -- at noon next Saturday in Kenan Stadium.
“We’ve got three games left, so we’re going to try to get back on track next week,” Bunting said.