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Achilles’ Heel

Chris Hine | Monday, October 13, 2008

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The clock hit zero before Notre Dame quarterback Jimmy Clausen could down the ball inside the 10-yard line. North Carolina players rushed the field. But Charlie Weis had thought there was still time left on the clock.

He was right. Replay officials said there were two seconds left – but they also said Notre Dame didn’t have the ball anymore. North Carolina did, giving the Tar Heels a 29-24 victory Saturday over the deflated Irish.

“I’m not saying this to be disrespectful, but that team in that locker room today, 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,” Irish coach Charlie Weis said. “And the reason they really feel bad is because they’re starting to get it … This is not the same team that everyone saw at the beginning of the year. This team is starting to get it.”

The officials initially said freshman wide receiver Michael Floyd was down before he let go of a fourth-down reception at the 7-yard line. North Carolina defensive back Jordan Hemby scooped it up. After review, the officials gave the ball back to the Tar Heels.

“The guys upstairs don’t know about when the whistle is blown, so they’re not there, whether the play is blown dead or not blown dead,” Weis said. “It’s a bitter ending, but it is what it is.”

Notre Dame had entered fourth quarter with a 24-22 lead, but North Carolina quarterback Cameron Sexton (18-for-32, 201 yards) scored on a 4-yard bootleg just a few seconds into the quarter to give the Tar Heels a 29-24 lead. The score capped a seven-play, 42-yard drive for North Carolina that was set up by a Clausen fumble that was recovered by Tar Heels defensive lineman Aleric Mullins.

Clausen set another career high for yards in a game, throwing for 383 yards on 31-for-48 passing with two touchdowns, but he also accounted for three of Notre Dame’s five turnovers. He also threw two interceptions against the Tar Heels, who lead the nation in picks.

“Too many mistakes,” Clausen said of his performance. “Too many mistakes to be able win a big game like this. North Carolina’s a great team, great defense and I give them a lot of credit.”

Notre Dame had plenty of chances in the fourth quarter to re-capture the lead. On its first drive following Sexton’s touchdown, the Irish drove to the North Carolina 30-yard line, but a short run by sophomore running back Armando Allen, who had 60 yards rushing and 47 yards receiving, and a pair of incomplete passes, Notre Dame faced a fourth-and-seven on the 27-yard line. Weis opted to go for it, a decision he said was not based upon the recent struggles of kicker Brandon Walker.

“I thought we needed a touchdown,” Weis said of the decision. “It had nothing to do with [Walker] … Obviously, I put the kid in before, but … I was concerned with them being able to run out the clock.”

Clausen found receiver David Grimes over the middle on the fourth-down play, but Grimes was tackled before reaching the first down marker, giving the ball back to North Carolina.

After forcing a punt, Notre Dame again drove into North Carolina territory before Clausen threw one of his interceptions on what appeared to be miscommunication between him and Floyd.

“The clock was running down. It was late getting set up, we just barely got the play off and I think because it was running down so late, Michael and Jimmy weren’t on the same page because he couldn’t get a clean read on what the coverage is because we were rushed,” Weis said.

Clausen threw his first interception on Notre Dame’s first play of the third quarter on a pass intended for tight end Kyle Rudolph. But Tar Heels linebacker Quan Sturdivant intercepted the pass and took it 32 yards for a touchdown to make the score 17-16 in favor of the Irish.

“Despite the x’s and o’s, you need an inspirational play, something good to happen … ” North Carolina coach Butch Davis said. “[That interception] just electrified the whole football team, kind of got our mojo going again.”

Notre Dame responded with an 11-play, 72-yard drive, aided by a roughing the punter penalty, to regain its eight-point lead. On that drive, Clausen went 4-for-7 for 44 yards.

“I put the ball in his hands again,” Weis said. “And he drives us right down the field and scores … which out of the whole game, probably showed the most moxy of anything.”

North Carolina countered with a long drive of its own, going 69 yards on 13 plays. On the drive, North Carolina faced a third-and-18 on its own 34, but Sexton found receiver Hakeem Nicks, who finished with nine catches and 141 yards, for 19 yards to keep the drive going. The Tar Heels scored eight plays later on a 1-yard run by tailback Ryan Houston to cut Notre Dame’s lead to 24-22 with 5:14 left to play in the third quarter.

In the first half, Notre Dame had little trouble moving the ball.

Using a five-wide receiver set the entire time it was on the field in its first drive, Notre Dame went 82 yards on 11 plays for its first touchdown. Clausen was 5-for-9 on the drive, and converted two third downs, including a 19-yard, third-and-10 completion to wide receiver Golden Tate in the end zone. Tate finished with five catches for 121 yards. One of those catches came on Notre Dame’s next touchdown on a pass that seemed to be a sure interception for North Carolina.

On second-and-9 from the 39, Clausen seemed to overthrow Tate deep down the sidelines. North Carolina cornerback Kendric Burney had his eyes fixed skyward, and his body positioned to make the interception. Then Tate came flying in, jumped and snatched the ball before Burney could get it for a 47-yard catch. Three plays later, Clausen found Floyd for a 7-yard touchdown to give Notre Dame a 17-6 lead.

“I think I just had some divine intervention on that one,” Tate said.

But that divine intervention didn’t come when Notre Dame needed it most.