The last time Notre Dame visited Chapel Hill? You won’t believe it.
The Fighting Irish were last here during the 2008 season, Butch Davis’ second as the Tar Heel head coach and his first of three bowl teams. But if I were to tell you that Carolina won the game without injured quarterback T.J Yates, and back-up Cameron Sexton was the star, would you remember it that way?
I didn’t until I looked it up. The Tar Heels were 4-1 and ranked No. 22 the week after Yates went down with a fractured left ankle. Sexton, who had what could be described as a checkered college career, stepped in against the unranked Irish and quarterbacked a clean game, completing 18 of 32 passes for 201 yards. He didn’t throw for a score but ran in what turned out to be the winning touchdown early in the fourth quarter.
The Irish went back to South Bend kicking themselves in their collective butts. They had 150 more total yards and six more first downs than the Heels and also controlled the ball more than four minutes longer. But they turned it over a whopping six times, losing four fumbles and two interceptions thrown by eventual Panthers quarterback Jimmy Clausen, one returned 32 yards for a touchdown by Quan Sturdivant early in the third period.
UNC was perfect in that department as Shaun Draughn led all rushers with 91 yards on 17 carries as a prelude to a respectable NFL career. Hakeem Nicks was the best receiver on the field with nine catches for 141 yards, outplaying Notre Dame All-American Golden Tate. But it was Sexton who excelled and held the fort until Yates returned for the last two games of the regular season and the bowl in Charlotte.
The Tar Heels trailed 24-16 late in the third quarter, then scored the last 13 points in the game. Ryan Houston plunged in from one yard out and the two-point conversion to tie failed. But Sexton engineered the decisive drive after another Notre Dame turnover, taking the Tar Heels 42 yards to his leaping touchdown followed by Casey Barth’s extra point in the 29-24 final.
The Heels faded toward the end of the season, losing to State for a second straight time and then to West Virginia in the Meineke Car Care Bowl. But on that crisp October Saturday in the pines, senior Cam Sexton played a game to definitely remember.