Tar Heels take big step with win

Posted by ESPN.com's Graham Watson

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The first step was a Top 25 ranking, the second was validation. Less than a week after North Carolina appeared at No. 22 in the AP rankings, the Tar Heels took that second step Saturday with a dramatic 29-24 come-from-behind win over Notre Dame.

It didn't matter that it wasn't one of the storied Notre Dame teams. It didn't matter that this was the first time the two schools had met when the Tar Heels were ranked and the Irish were not. What mattered was that North Carolina validated its ranking with a win over a name foe and gave further credibility to the program coach Butch Davis is building.

"We are excited and thrilled to have won this game," Davis said after his team's victory. "I don't know if I have ever been involved in as bizarre a football game as what transpired tonight."

"It was two teams that fought hard and you've got to give Notre Dame an awful lot of credit. I know they hate coming out on the short end. It's two programs scratching and fighting and trying to find away to reestablish themselves as football programs."

This game was a chance for both teams to make their mark on the national scene. But for a North Carolina team that many thought would be a force in the ACC this year, this win will likely open some eyes and give the Tar Heels some of the credit for which they were looking.

And it's not just the win, it's the way the Tar Heels won. They were dominated in the first half by Notre Dame's offense. The defense couldn't stop quarterback Jimmy Clausen, or any of the other weapons the Irish wanted to throw their way.

The Tar Heels offense was fine between the 30s, but had trouble putting the ball into the end zone in the first half. It was trading field goals for touchdowns.

But on the first play of the first drive of the second half, all of that changed. An interception by linebacker Quan Sturdivant got the Tar Heels back in the game, and a forced fumble and recovery by Aleric Mullins late in the third quarter swayed momentum for good.

"We knew we had to play better defense," Sturdivant said. "We had to do our coverage responsibilities better. They caught us off guard a little bit."

It seems almost surreal after a game between these two teams the rankings talk is about North Carolina and not the Irish. The Tar Heels will undoubtedly move up in the rankings with some losses by the teams ahead of them. A

And with that, more people will start to believe that there's something legitimate going on in Chapel Hill.