The 50-43 victory Saturday, the highest-scoring game in the 84-year-history of Notre Dame Stadium, wasn’t secure for the sixth-ranked Irish until Ben Koyack recovered the Tar Heels’ onside kick with 47 seconds left.
“We managed to find a way to battle back and get up on them and score 15 points late in the game and get a win,” Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly said. “There are many, many things I could delve into, but I would say the thing that points up for me is that our guys know how to win football games. They found a way to win this one.”
It marked the second straight game the Irish (6-0) rallied to win in the fourth quarter. Last week, they beat Stanford with a touchdown with 61 seconds left. The Irish are at No. 1 Florida State (6-0) next week.
Notre Dame’s last game against a No. 1 team was against USC in 2005, the “Bush Push” game when Trojans tailback Reggie Bush nudged quarterback Matt Leinart into the end zone with 3 seconds left for the winning touchdown.
North Carolina (2-4) lost its fourth straight and fell to 0-12 all-time at Notre Dame Stadium.
“I just left a team whose guts are ripped out of them right now,” North Carolina coach Larry Fedora said. “They came here believing they were going to win a football game, and they came up short.”
Golson threw three touchdowns passes to overcome his three turnovers, giving him a total of nine turnovers in the past three games. He was 21-of-38 passing for 300 yards.
“If you take away those three turnovers that I had, the score looks a little bit more relaxed. I will do better,” Golson said.
North Carolina’s Marquise Williams threw two touchdown passes, ran for another score and caught a 23-yard TD pass from receiver Quinshad Davis late in the third quarter to give the Tar Heels a 36-35 lead.
But mistakes hurt the Tar Heels as they have all season. A roughing-the-center penalty on North Carolina’s Norkeithus Otis kept alive a drive that led to a 9-yard TD pass from Golson to Tarean Folston early in the fourth quarter and the Irish added a two-point conversion.
Fedora said he was better off not commenting about the penalty, but said Otis told him he didn’t hit the center too early.
But Kelly said the Notre Dame coaches alerted officials earlier that North Carolina was doing it.
North Carolina was driving when Williams’ short pass was intercepted by cornerback Cole Luke at the 26. That set up Folston’s 6-yard scoring run, his third touchdown.
Fedora called the interception unfortunate.
“That guy played his heart out,” Fedora said. “He really gave everything he had out there.”
Williams rushed for a career-high 132 yards and was 24-of-41 passing for 303 yards.
“We couldn’t tackle him,” Kelly said. “We had two or three ties where we couldn’t get him down.”
Fedora said Williams played as hard as he could.
“He ran hard, he threw the ball. He gave us a chance,” Fedora said. “He gave his team a chance to win a football game tonight.”
Fedora abandoned his practice of rotating quarterbacks. Mitch Trubisky, a redshirt freshman, had entered each game on the third offensive series, but didn’t play against the Irish. Williams said that helped him get in a rhythm.
“I was going with the flow and the guys were behind me,” he said.
Folston finished with 98 yards rushing for the Irish on 18 carries for Notre Dame. Will Fuller had seven catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns.
Freshman Elijah Hood, who originally committed to Notre Dame, had a season-high 17 carries, finishing with 27 yards. The Tar Heels finished with a season-high 510 yards of offense.
The victory ended a streak of 16 straight losses by the Irish when an opponent scored 35 or more points. Golson said the key was the Irish didn’t lose their composure.
“Just having the faith and not believing that we were going to lose this game – that we were going to find a way to pull it out somehow,” he said.