(UHND) – Notre Dame’s last offensive play on Saturday turned out to be a pretty fitting ending to a game in which the Irish turned the ball over five times. Facing a fourth and 13 with 11 seconds on the clock trailing #22 North Carolina by five points from the UNC 33 yard line, Jimmy Clausen fired a laser beam of a pass to freshman Michael Floyd for what would have been a first and goal with a few second remaining. Unfortunately, replay officials ruled Floyd lost control of the ball before he hit the ground and North Carolina recovered to seal their 29-24 win over the Irish.
The fumble was Notre Dame’s fifth turnover of the game and their fourth of the second half alone. The fumble also wasn’t the only controversial official review of the game. Notre Dame’s last drive was set up after replay officials overturned a Cam Sexton to Brooks Foster pass that was originally ruled a catch on the field.
The only reason the Irish were even in a situation where they were at the mercy of referee or replay official’s ruling, however, was the turnovers. Notre Dame built a 17-9 halftime lead thanks in large part to a spread the field offensive attack which produced two Jimmy Clausen touchdown passes to Golden Tate and Michael Floyd.
Notre Dame opened the second half with a nine point and the ball looking to add to its lead against a defense which up until that point had very few answers for the Irish offense. The first play of the second half would end up changing the entire momentum of the game and being a sign of things to come. As Jimmy Clausen dropped back to pass he looked for his tight end Kyle Rudolph on a short pattern, but North Carolina linebacker Quan Sturdivant jumped the rout and took Clausen’s pass 32 yards in the other direction to draw the Tar Heels within 1.
The Irish would respond quickly though. After a North Carolina roughing the punter penalty breathed life into an Irish drive which had stalled abruptly, Clausen marched the offense down the field and capped off an 11 play, 72 yard drive by handing the ball off to James Aldridge for the junior’s first career touchdown. Unfortunately that would prove to be the last Irish score of the game.
North Carolina responded to the Irish score with a 13 play 69 yard drive of their own highlighted by a 3rd and 18 conversion near midfield. Replays showed that Carolina’s Hakeem Nicks may have fumbled the ball away with Notre Dame’s Robert Blanton recovering, but official ruled Nicks was down and no replay was called for by either the replay booth or Weis. Had Weis challenged the play, there is a good chance the Irish would have had the ball up eight points with the ball at the Notre Dame 47 yard line. No replay was called for though and eight plays later the Tar Heels capped off their drive with a one yard touchdown run by Ryan Houston.
On their next drive, the Irish found themselves inside North Carolina territory once again when Clausen dropped back to pass and had the ball knocked out his hand by Aleric Mullins. Clausen set the Irish up in Tar Heel territory by connecting with Robert Hughes on a nicely designed 15 yard wheel route, but the fumble ended the drive with the Irish clinging to just a two point lead. Nine plays later, Cam Sexton ran the ball into the end zone to give North Carolina their first lead of the game at 29-24.
The fourth quarter saw the Irish drive within scoring distance three times yet fail to put a single point on the board. After Carolina took the lead, Notre Dame drove 51 yards in eight plays to the North Carolina 27 yard line, but a Clausen to David Grimes pass on fourth down came up three yards short of a first down.
Notre Dame followed up that drive with another promising drive that ended when Clausen and Floyd had a miscommunication which resulted in Clausen’s second interception of the game. Floyd cut to the middle of the field on 3rd and 11 while Clausen threw it deep and out and into the arms of Deunta Williams. This would be the last drive prior to the game’s final drive which ended with the Floyd fumble.
The Irish had six drives in the second half. One ended with a touchdown, one ended on downs in North Carolina territory, and four ended with turnovers (three of which occurred after the Irish drove inside North Carolina territory). Had just one of those four drives ended with a touchdown rather than or a turnover, the Irish would be celebrating a 5-1 record instead of still searching for their first road victory of the year.
Any time you turn the ball over five times on the road against a quality opponent it is going to be pretty tough to win. Amazingly the Irish were still in a position to potentially win the game in the final seconds despite the five turnovers and that is part of what makes this loss particularly tough for the Irish and their fans to swallow. This was a game that the Irish could have and likely should have won.
North Carolina’s defense had very few answers for the Irish offense from the start of the game and as a result Notre Dame racked up some impressive offensive statistics. Notre Dame outgained North Carolina by 150 yards, 472 to 322. Notre Dame held the ball for six more minutes than Carolina and maintained possession of the ball for an incredible 10:26 in the fourth quarter alone.
North Carolina completely dominated Notre Dame in very important statistic though and that was turnovers. While Notre Dame turned it over five times, North Carolina didn’t record a single turnover and that was the difference in the game. Had the Irish protected the football in the second half as they did in the first half, perhaps this could have been an impressive road victory for the Irish.
Sadly, the Irish didn’t protect the football though and all we’re left with is a whole lot of shoulda, coulda, woulda’s.
Notre Dame now enters the bye week at 4-2 with two weeks to prepare for a winless Washington team coached by former Notre Dame head coach Tyrone Willingham in what will likely be a game be much more interesting off the field than on it. While Saturday’s outcome was indeed disappointing for the Irish, if they bring the offense they showed on Saturday to Seattle and leave the turnovers in Chapel Hill, the Irish shouldn’t have a hard time handling the Huskies who will be playing without their star quarterback Jake Locker.