CHAPEL HILL, N.C. --- In a game with more plot twists than a murder mystery novel, the Tar Heels prevailed 29-24 over Notre Dame. In the words of head coach Butch Davis, this was a “bizarre” game. Two plays were reviewed – seemingly interminably - by the Big 10 officiating crew, which caused a lot of confusion, but at the end of the day five turnovers by Notre Dame against none for the Tar Heels made the difference.
IRISH OFFENSIVE EARLY AND OFTEN
Notre Dame decided to test North Carolina’s secondary early on, attempting 14 first-quarter passes against only four rushing attempts. Jimmy Clausen and company rolled up 158 yards of total offense in the first quarter alone, and 260 yards by the end of the first half – leading the Irish to a 17-9 lead by intermission. Before the day was over, Notre Dame rang up a total of 472 yards – its highest offensive output this year.
“They came out in the no-huddle offense and an empty formation,” Davis said. “They had not really shown much of that with Jimmy Clausen in the last two years. They had us reeling - it took a while to scratch some stuff on the sidelines, to tweak some coverages and come up with some things that our kids could actually execute and do.”
TAR HEELS WIN TURNOVER BATTLE (AGAIN)
On Notre Dame’s opening drive of the second half, Quan Sturdivant picked off Clausen and returned it for a touchdown. It was Clausen’s first interception in 132 attempts, the second-longest streak in Notre Dame’s history, and the Tar Heels would go on to record their 14th interception of year when Deunta Williams ended a fourth-quarter Notre Dame possession.
“The team with the most turnovers, most of the time, wins the game,” safety Trimane Goddard said. “It takes points off the board and gives the ball to the offense more and changes field position.”
On the evening, the Heels won the turnover battle, five-to-none - the most forced by UNC since the Utah game in 2005. It now stands at +11 in turnover margin this season. The Tar Heels recovered three fumbles (one each by Aleric Mullins, LaCount Fantroy, and Trimane Goddard.
It was the Sturdivant pick, however, that was the shot-in-the-arm that the Tar Heels needed at the time. “Despite the X’s and O’s, you need an inspirational play, something good to happen,” Davis said. “It just electrified the whole football team. It kind of got our mojo going again.”
NICKS PICKS UP HEELS
Brandon Tate went down in the first quarter with a sprained right knee, but Hakeem Nicks seemed to pick up his game to compensate for the loss of the senior. Nicks had seven catches in the first half for 116 yards, securing his eighth career 100-yard game, a UNC record. He finished the game with nine catches for 141 yards.
Nicks abused North Carolina native and Notre Dame cornerback Raeshon McNeil on three consecutive catches near the end of the first half. Robert Blanton, a North Carolina native, also covered Nicks at times.
“The coaches told us we couldn’t keep settling for field goals because they were putting up points early,” Nicks said. “We had to get it all together and make a few changes.”
RUNNING GAME ADVANCES
Shaun Draughn continues to increase his role in the backfield. He had 17 carries for 92 yards, and had one touchdown called back because of a penalty (the second Draughn touchdown called back this year).
In short yardage situations and around the goal line, Ryan Houston is building a resume as the “go-to” back. “(When) we got to the red zone Ryan Houston did a good job of carrying the load,” Nicks said.
KICKING GAME IMPROVEMENT
Casey Barth connected on three field goal attempts, including a career-long of 42 yards. Jay Wooten did a commendable job on kick offs, and Terrence Brown had a good night punting the ball – downing three of four punts inside the 20-yard line. Overall, it was the best game of the year from all phases of the kicking game. Davis commended all the kickers in his post-game remarks.
SEXTON MANAGES GAME WELL
What the UNC coaches expect from Cameron Sexton has become clear – manage the game and don’t make mistakes. Mission accomplished. Sexton was 18-of-32 for 201 yards and rushed for one touchdown on a nifty little fake to Ryan Houston from the four-yard line.
The two reviewed plays near the end of the game created a lot of confusion.
On the first call, a third-down play which would have given the Tar Heels a first down with less than two minutes remaining, Brooks Foster was initially ruled to have made a the catch, the ball bouncing out as he hit the ground. It seemed clear from replays in the press box that Foster had caught the ball, taken two steps, then fumbled the ball after hitting the ground. On review, however, the play was overturned, ruled an incompletion, and forced the Tar Heels to punt.
On the ensuing drive, time was running out on Notre Dame on a fourth-and-13 from the 33-yard line. Jimmy Clausen’s pass was caught by a Notre Dame receiver who was tackled by DaNorris Searcy and Trimane Goddard at the seven-yard line. The ball was snapped with one-second left, and spiked by Jimmy Clausen – the game appeared to be over and the crowd began to celebrate.
However, the play was reviewed – much to Butch Davis’s consternation. “Based on the previous experiences during the course of the game, I was not severely optimistic about the potential outcome,” Davis said. “I saw it clearly as a fumble and I think most everyone else did.”
Notre Dame head coach Charlie Weis had a different point of view. “It’s a bitter ending, but it is what it is,” Weis said. “They called it that way, and that’s it. I thought that he had called him down with what I thought was four seconds to go. I thought that he had called him down, but it really doesn’t make a difference what I thought.”
As noted, Brandon Tate left the game in the first half with a sprained right knee. Zack Pianalto was taken off the field in the third quarter with what appeared to be an ankle sprain. No word yet on the extent of either injury.
North Carolina is 5-1, off to its best start since the 1997 season, and today’s win was its first as a ranked team since Jan. 1, 1998, when the 7th ranked Heels defeated Virginia Tech 42-3 in the Gator Bowl.
Next week, the Tar Heels go on the road to Virginia. They have not won a game in Charlottesville since November 14, 1981.