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Instant Analysis: Notre Dame-North Carolina

Staff Columnist
Posted Oct 11, 2008

On a crazy play at the end of a wildly entertaining game, two teams’ fates hung in the balance. After several agonizing minutes of nail-chewing nervousness, a ruling came down that was as complicated as the play itself. All North Carolina will care about, though, is the fact that the Tar Heels overcame adversity—and several Irish advantages—to make a great year even greater in Chapel Hill.

On a day that belonged to Carolina quarterback Cameron Sexton—a former third-stringer who has played like a No. 1 signal caller since he stepped under center—the outcome of this intersectional encounter wasn’t decided until the replay booth weighed in with two seconds left in regulation (and that’s a technicality to be explained shortly). Sexton’s heroics represented the best and biggest feel-good story of this fireworks-filled festival, but the ins and outs of the final, fateful play demand a complete explanation. The conclusion to this tense tussle was that confusing.

Let’s set the scene in a darkened Kenan Stadium. With 11 seconds left in regulation, the Irish, trailing 29-24, faced a 4th and 13 at the UNC 33, with no timeouts at their disposal. Usually, a play from the 33 will not take 11 seconds to run, so it stood to reason that Notre Dame—with a first down inside the UNC 20--could have run a second play in those frantic final seconds.

On the 4th and 13 play, Irish quarterback Jimmy Clausen—who made only one really crushing mistake all day, a pick-six early in the third quarter that helped Carolina change its fortunes—threw a 24-yard pass to receiver Michael Floyd, who caught the pass inside the UNC 10 with—as replays would eventually show—five seconds left. This is where the wildness entered the building.

After the two timeouts that preceded the play (one by each team), Floyd—along with every other Notre Dame receiver—should have understood the needs of the given situation. With a catch in the field of play, good for a first down but short of the end zone, Floyd should have immediately kneeled on the ground to stop the play and give his team one shot from the Carolina 9. But Floyd kept fighting for extra yardage, and only when his progress was stopped did he try to lateral the ball in a last-ditch attempt to keep the game alive. Had Floyd exercised better judgment, his team would have gained a legitimate chance of winning. That lapse, however, only marked the beginning of the insanity.

In a nightmare for any crew of officials and replay reviewers, a supremely complex play took place with just one second left on the clock. Notre Dame’s offensive unit frantically scrambled to the line of scrimmage, and—with that one second still on the clock—initiated another scrimmage play. Clausen spiked the ball, but naturally, not in time to get another play. Clausen’s only choice, with one second left, was to run a play for the end zone. With two seconds on the clock, a stoppage with one second left was plausible, but with only one second left, Notre Dame had to run a play for the victory instead of hoping to stop the clock. When that ball was snapped and then spiked into the turf, the game—by all rights—should have been over from a certain narrow and legalistic perspective. By rule, the game was done, and Carolina coach Butch Davis shook Charlie Weis’s hand to indicate as much.

This game wouldn’t end so easily. Legalism was tempered by an appeal to justice, in a development that law students from these two schools could debate for a long time to come (maybe when classes resume on Monday in Chapel Hill and South Bend).

After a morning in which the Texas-Oklahoma game suffered because of two baffling decisions to not review plays by means of replay, the crew in this game did the fair and honorable thing by reviewing Floyd and the fumble that may or may not have been. Here’s what the replay crew and the officials had to sort out: It wasn’t a short list of considerations.

First of all, Floyd caught the ball at the UNC 7 before being pushed back to the 9. If the officials had viewed that Floyd’s forward progress had been stopped, they could have ruled that no fumble occurred on the play, whether or not Floyd’s knee touched the ground before the ball came loose. That was one aspect of the play the officials seemed to miss.

Secondly, Floyd’s knee did appear to be down before he let go of that intentional lateral. Yes, the ball shifted around in Floyd’s hands a few moments earlier, but the receiver seemed to regain a firm hold on the football before his lateral. Impact with the ground clearly preceded his lateral, but the replay booth felt otherwise, and UNC gained the ball with (technically) two seconds left, only to then run out the clock and make the victory certain. That aspect of this fateful decision also appeared to be in error.

Nevertheless, while the specific aspects of this decision shafted Notre Dame, the larger and longer view suggested that all these events never should have taken place, because when the Irish spiked the ball after Floyd’s catch, the game—by rule—was over. The worst aspect of the officiating crew’s performance was that it didn’t go to the booth in time to give clarity and cleanliness to this cluttered conclusion. Had that last ball-spike not occurred, the controversial ruling on Floyd’s fumble would have occurred under more legitimate circumstances.

As an addendum to the crazy climax of this contest—which, in a narrow sense, deprived Notre Dame of one try from the UNC 9—Carolina fans can rightfully point out that an earlier replay ruling is precisely what allowed this game to be decided in the final seconds.

With 1:47 left in the fourth quarter and the Tar Heels trying to get one first down to seal the outcome, Sexton—who brought his team back from a number of deficits with fearless football and awesome execution under pressure—lofted a perfect pass to Brooks Foster inside the Irish 30. In a play amazingly similar to Lamont Robinson’s denied interception of Colt McCoy in the Oklahoma-Texas tilt, Foster caught the ball and then landed hard on the ground. A split second after hitting the turf, Foster half-rolled on his side, only for the ball to come loose at that late point. The fact that contact with the turf did not immediately produce a loss of possession should have enabled the catch to stand. Only in cases of an instantaneous loss of possession should an incomplete pass be ruled.

It’s rare when one play demands so much scrutiny, but in the case of this afternoon’s Tar Heel triumph, it was worthwhile to give maximum attention to a mesmerizing gridiron mystery.

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