CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- North Carolina started the second half with an interception return for a touchdown and sealed the game with a last-second fumble recovery. In between the Tar Heels did just enough to beat Notre Dame for the first time in a generation.
Cameron Sexton scored on a leaping 4-yard keeper to start the fourth quarter and Quan Sturdivant had the momentum-changing 32-yard interception return to help the No. 22 Tar Heels beat the Fighting Irish 29-24 on Saturday, providing another boost to coach Butch Davis' rebuilding effort.
The Tar Heels (5-1), off to their best start since going 8-0 in 1997, beat the Fighting Irish (4-2) for the first time since 1960.
Hakeem Nicks had nine catches for 141 yards and freshman walk-on Casey Barth kicked three field goals, helping North Carolina rally from an 11-point first-half deficit.
The Tar Heels' offense failed to reach the end zone in the first half while their defense struggled to slow Jimmy Clausen and the Notre Dame passing game. But their knack for forcing turnovers -- four after halftime -- was enough to help them hang on in a game that came down to a wild finish.
"It takes everybody buying in," Davis said. "Our kids have got a lot of fight, a lot of perseverance and keep scratching to try and find a way to win."
North Carolina came in ranked for the first time in seven years, and playing at home as a ranked team for the first time in a decade, a sign of how badly things have gone since Mack Brown departed for Texas after the '97 season.
It was also Notre Dame's first game in the state of North Carolina since unheralded sophomore Joe Montana led a comeback win here in 1975.
The teams certainly provided a memorable finish, with Notre Dame reaching the North Carolina 7 in the final seconds before officials ruled -- after a review -- that receiver Michael Floyd fumbled the ball in what appeared to be a frantic attempted lateral. Trimane Goddard recovered, giving the ball back to North Carolina for a joyous kneel-down with 3 seconds left.
Clausen threw for a career-best 383 yards -- his third straight career game -- and touchdowns to Golden Tate and Floyd that helped the Irish take a 17-9 halftime lead.
Notre Dame finished with 472 yards, but couldn't overcome two interceptions and two lost fumbles in the second half.
"I told them it's a different team than I've seen in the last year and change," Notre Dame coach Charlie Weis said. "That team in there today expected to win. They didn't come here hoping to win. ... The reason they feel really bad is because they're starting to get it. This is not the same team that everyone saw at the beginning of the year."
The Tar Heels went most of the way without big-play receiver and returner Brandon Tate, who sprained his right knee in the first quarter. Nicks picked up the slack with another big day against the Irish after tallying six catches for 171 yards and a score against them two years ago in South Bend. Converted safety Shaun Draughn added his second straight solid game, finishing with 91 yards rushing on 17 carries.
Sexton, the one-time third stringer filling in for injured starter T.J. Yates, threw for 201 yards. But he made his biggest play with his feet, scrambling right on third down and jumping through a hit from Kyle McCarthy at the goal line for the 29-24 lead with 14:55 to play.
"We don't get real rah-rah in the locker room," Sexton said. "We're a pretty composed team, and we just kind of stick to what we do, keep doing it and it's going to come around. We're not going to panic and freak out and draw plays in the sand."
Clausen looked sharp most of the day behind a line that gave him plenty of time. But the sophomore made three costly second-half mistakes.
It started when Sturdivant jumped in front of Kyle Rudolph for the pick on Clausen's first pass. The 32-yard return cut the deficit to 17-16. Later in the period, Aleric Mullins stripped Clausen and recovered the fumble to set up the go-ahead drive. Then, after the Irish had driven to North Carolina's 36 with about 5 minutes left, Deunta Williams picked off Clausen on the right side to set up a drive that took 3 minutes off the clock.
North Carolina -- which came into the game leading the nation with 12 interceptions -- also recovered a fumbled kickoff late in the first half and did not committ a turnover.
"[Defensive coordinator Everett Withers] stresses to us all week during practices to just be in the right spots and turnovers will come," Mullins said. "Just do the little things: 'Don't bite the cheese,' he always says. Just wait for it and the interceptions and picks will come to you."
Once Notre Dame got the ball back at its own 18 with 1:47 to play, Clausen guided one more drive, pushing to the North Carolina 33 with 11 seconds left before finding Floyd over the middle on what turned out to be the Irish's final play.
"I just wanted one more chance to help this team win," Clausen said. "Too many mistakes to be able to win a big game like this."