After committing four turnovers in 30 minutes without a takeaway of its own, it was truly amazing that Notre Dame still had a chance to win Saturday's game against North Carolina. Unfortunately for the Irish, their fifth turnover of the day sealed their defeat and gave the Tar Heels a 29-24 victory.
The Irish had four possessions in the first half - two touchdowns, a field goal and a punt – before Jonas Gray fumbled a kickoff nine seconds before the break. The turnover was Notre Dame's first in more than 10 quarters, dating back to Michael Floyd's fumble in the third quarter of the Michigan State game. The Irish had gone 175 minutes and 41 seconds between turnovers. The Irish were fortunate that the fumble was not costly as North Carolina missed a 52-yard field goal with time expiring in the half.
Charlie Weis likes to say that punting is not always the worst way to end a drive and on Saturday his team proved him right. In five possessions in the second half, Notre Dame did not punt once and that was not a good thing.
On the first play from scrimmage after halftime, Jimmy Clausen was intercepted by North Carolina linebacker Quan Sturdivant, who brought it back 32 yards for a score, cutting the Irish lead to 17-16. Weis said that Clausen was fooled by a disguised coverage.
"Presnap, it was a two high safety, they rolled down, he should have thrown a quick out to Michael who was wide open," Weis said. "They gave him the presnap look, so he obviously would like to have that back. That goes without saying."
Clausen led the offense on an 11-play, 72-yard touchdown drive on the ensuing possession, but those would be the final points of the day for the Irish and was the last time that Notre Dame would hang onto the ball.
After North Carolina responded with a touchdown to cut the score to 24-22 with just over five minutes to play, Clausen was stripped by North Carolina's Aleric Mullins on a 1st-and-10 play near midfield. The Tar Heels took their first lead of the game with a Cameron Sexton touchdown run seven plays later.
Weis said that he would expect the quarterback to hang on to the ball in that situation.
"The guy beats Danny (Wenger) a little bit to his right and gets his hand on the ball. But it wasn't like he got a full shot on him where he was just knocking the heck out of him. He just stripped the ball out of his hands," said Weis. "When you have the ball and the ball possession with two hands on the ball, you'd like to think in that situation we'd do a better job of taking care of the ball."
But the coach also stressed that he did not think Clausen was being careless.
"In his defense, he never saw the guy. You know, usually you can feel the guy, but he felt the guy was already pushed by him," he said. "The guy just kind of reached out with his hand and knocked the ball out of his hand. So I don't think he was being careless with the ball, I think that he just felt that the guy was being pushed by him already and he was ready to step up and throw the ball at the time. Because he never anticipated the ball to be touched, that's what caused that."
Clausen gave Wenger credit for doing his job, pinning the blame on himself.
"I tried to step up in the pocket, Dan Wenger made a good block pushing the tackle," he said. "I just tried to step up and (Mullins) got his hand on the ball."
Sexton's touchdown would be the final score of the game, but with 14:55 left in the game the Irish had plenty of time to respond. In fact, the Irish had the ball almost twice as long as North Carolina in the final quarter, but turnovers killed them.
Notre Dame's first drive of the fourth ended when David Grimes was stopped short on a 4th-and-7 play with 11:50 remaining. But the Irish defense forced a three-and-out to give their offense another chance. Clausen led the team down to North Carolina's 36-yard line, but his third down pass was intercepted after a miscommunication between him and Floyd. After the game Weis said that Clausen should have used a timeout because it was clear that quarterback and receiver were not on the same page with the play clock running down.
The last drive of the game will be discussed, debated and deliberated for years to come, but in the end Floyd lost the ball and the officials ruled that North Carolina recovered to clinch the game and deny Notre Dame one last shot at the win.
Clausen was involved with three of the five turnovers, but he came right back after the first interception and while he was visibly upset, he never hung his head and did his best in an attempt to get one final shot. Weis has no problem with Clausen being emotional on the sideline and said that it is a quality that all of his great quarterbacks have had.
"He should be upset when there's things that go poorly," Weis said. "This kid's a fierce competitor now. There's nothing wrong with being mad at yourself when something bad happens. It's not a question of being (angry), it's how quickly you gain your composure. If you noticed, every time I saw him in that state, we had a brief conversation and it was over with. And that's what really good quarterbacks do. They're supposed to get mad.
"I can't tell you the number of expletives that came out of Tommy (Brady's) mouth in the years we had him, and after a short conversation, it would be over with. And Brady (Quinn) was like that and Jimmy's like that. It doesn't take a long conversation for him to get a quick grasp of things and get back to business."
After the five turnovers, the thing that stands out is the zero takeaways. A television replay appeared to show that Robert Blanton had stripped Hakeem Nicks after a 19-yard reception on 3rd-and-18 in the third quarter, but the officials never took a second look at it. Carolina's Ryan Houston ultimately capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run to cut the lead to 24-22.
Without getting a chance to take the field after a turnover, the Notre Dame offense never came out in plus-territory. The best field position the Irish offense had all day came after Houston's touchdown when Golden Tate returned the kickoff to North Carolina's 34-yard line. While the blame falls on the offense for four of the turnovers, a big play from the defense could have made the difference.
For the season, Notre Dame is even in turnover margin (14-14), but when you break down the ratio by game there is an obvious pattern. In their four wins the Irish lead the turnover battle 13-6, while trailing 8-1 in the two losses. The Irish opener against San Diego State was far from impressive and the numbers become even more glaring if that game is added to the losses.
In Notre Dame's best three performances – against Michigan, Purdue and Stanford – the Irish forced 11 turnovers while committing just two. In the games against the Aztecs, Michigan State and North Carolina, Notre Dame turned the ball over 12 times while creating just three takeaways.
Weis likes to say that his team is not good enough to win just by showing up. This week his players learned that they are not good enough to prevail without at least keeping the turnover battle close.