CHAPEL HILL (N.C.) - You can chalk it up as growing pains that any young, developing team has to go through, but that does not make Notre Dame's 29-24 loss at North Carolina on Saturday any easier to swallow.
This was a game that Notre Dame could have won. This was a game that Notre Dame should have won. But the Irish did not. The Irish gave the ball away too many times and were unable to make a game-winning play in the end.
The Irish outgained North Carolina 472 to 322 and held on to the ball more than six minutes longer than the Tar Heels, but none of that changes the outcome.
"I can give you all sorts of stats, but really stats are for losers," Charlie Weis said after the game. "The big thing is did you win or did you lose? And we lost."
Still, Weis emphasized that this is not the same group of players that suffered through a nine-loss season a year ago.
"That's a different team than I've seen in the last year and change," Weis said. "It was the first time in a long time where I've looked in their faces against a good opponent and it was a team that really feels bad. And the reason they feel really bad is because they're starting to get it. They are starting to get it. This is not the same team that everyone saw at the beginning of the year."
The end of the game was as entertaining, confusing - and heartbreaking for Notre Dame – as any.
Trailing by five with under two minutes to play the Irish took over on their own 18-yard line with a chance to win. Golden Tate gained 30 yards on a Jimmy Clausen pass to move the ball toward midfield at the start of the drive. Clausen then completed passes of eight yards and 12 yards to Duval Kamara and Tate respectively to reach the North Carolina 30.
After two incompletions and a sack, Notre Dame had 4th-and-13 with 11 seconds left from the Tar Heel 33. Clausen found Michael Floyd over the middle and the freshman gained 26 yards, but after a lengthy replay process, it was ruled that the freshman had fumbled, with Carolina recovering to seal the game.
Clausen had another fine game throwing the ball, completing 31 of 48 passes for 383 yards and two touchdowns. But the sophomore quarterback also threw two interceptions, one of which was returned for a score, and lost a fumble.
"Too many mistakes," Clausen replied when asked to evaluate his play.
The Irish defense limited North Carolina quarterback Cameron Sexton to just 201 yards on 18 of 32 passing, but most of the damage was done by Hakeem Nicks, who had nine catches for 141 yards. Shaun Draughn led the Tar Heels' ground attack with 91 yards on 17 carries, while Ryan Houston and Sexton each had rushing scores.
Notre Dame seemed to be in control in the first half, taking a 17-9 lead into the locker room, but the Irish were a different team after halftime. Four of the Irish's five turnovers came after intermission and Notre Dame managed just seven second-half points while allowing 20.
The change happened immediately. On the very first play from scrimmage in the second half, Quan Sturdivant picked off a Clausen pass and returned it 32 yards for a score, cutting Notre Dame's lead to 17-16. Clausen was trying to fit the ball into tight end Kyle Rudolph and never saw Sturdivant, who jumped the route.
Clausen did rebound to lead the Irish down the field for a score after a roughing the punter penalty gave the Irish a key first down. The quarterback connected with Kamara on gains of 8, 16 and 16 yards to get the Irish to North Carolina 6-yard line. James Aldridge scored his first career touchdown from two yards out two plays later giving the Irish their eight-point lead back, 24-16, with 10:43 left in the second half.
A 19-yard reception by Nicks on 3rd-and-18 keyed Carolina's next drive, which featured both the run and the pass and was capped by a one-yard Houston touchdown run. The Tar Heels elected to go for two, but Maurice Crum batted down Sexton's pass and Notre Dame hung on to a 24-22 lead with 5:14 left in the third quarter.
North Carolina's Aleric Mullins stripped Clausen on Notre Dame's next drive to give the Tar Heels the ball back at the Notre Dame 42. North Carolina took advantage of the turnover with a seven-play drive that was capped with Sexton's four-yard plunge into the end zone to give the Tar Heels their first lead of the game 29-24 one play into the final quarter.
Notre Dame moved the ball into North Carolina territory on its next two possessions, but the Irish failed to convert a 4th-and-7 play on their first trip and Clausen was picked off by Deunta Williams after a miscommunication with Floyd, giving the Tar Heels the ball with 4:50 to play.
North Carolina got one first down and then appeared to ice the game with another, but Sexton's pass to Brooks Foster was overruled by the replay officials, giving Notre Dame the ball back for its final drive. But ultimately, the Irish would commit their final and most costly turnover of the day to end the game.
"At the end of the day, the key thing is we didn't take care of the football," Weis said. "Not taking care of the football ended up costing us."
Notre Dame came out of the gate looking good. The Irish defense forced a three-and-out on Carolina's first possession and the offense marched right down for a score.
Clausen was not perfect on his first drive and had a couple of passes that could have been picked off. He completed 5 of 9 passes for 63 yards, including a 19-yard fade to Tate for the game's first score less than five minutes in. In addition to the near interceptions, North Carolina had a pair of offside penalties that resulted in a first down.
The teams traded possessions before a 31-yard pass to Nicks followed by a 15-yard facemask penalty on David Bruton put the Heels at the Notre Dame 20. Notre Dame was able to keep Carolina out of the end zone, but Casey Barth drilled a 41-yard field goal to make it 7-3 with 2:49 left in the quarter.
After not even inserting a running back on their first two possessions, the Irish came out and pounded the ball on its third drive. Weis said that the Tar Heels switched to a dime defense, something they had never done before, and the Irish responded by putting Armando Allen in the game.
"We were going to stay one step ahead of them," Weis said.
The Irish finished the quarter with 11 first downs and outgained Carolina in yardage 158-73.
Allen rushed five times for 41 yards on Notre Dame's third drive, which ended with Brandon Walker nailing a 42-yard field goal to give the Irish a 10-3 lead with 12:53 left in the first half.
The Tar Heels found something on the ground on their first drive of the second quarter and used a 21-yard catch-and-run by Nicks to set Barth up with a 34-yard attempt that made the score 10-6 with 5:22 left in the quarter.
Tate made a tremendous catch for a 47-yard gain on Notre Dame's next drive to put the Irish inside the Carolina 10-yard line. Clausen hit Floyd on a 7-yard stop in the end zone to give the Irish a 17-6 lead with under a minute to play in the half.
The Tar Heels covered 41 yards quickly with three completions to Nicks to move into field goal range and Barth converted a 42-yarder to make the score 17-9 with nine seconds left in the half.
The ensuing kickoff bounced off Jonas Gray and was recovered by the Tar Heels at Notre Dame's 34-yard line giving them another chance before the half, but Barth's 52-yard attempt came up short.
Clausen finished the half 16 of 23 for 199 yards and the two scores. Sexton was 10 of 20 for 126 yards.