BENTON, TN -- The Notre Dame Fighting Irish didn't have a very good start, but what a way to finish as they improved to 9-3 with their 24-14 victory over the host Polk County Wildcats here at the Larry G. Davis Football Complex Friday night.
Notre Dame will be on the road again next Friday to face the Upperman Bees. The Bees remained unbeaten at 12-0 following a 70-49 shootout with the Tyner Rams.
As is the case in many high school sports, style points count more for what you look like at the finish line rather than at the starting line and that was the case in a game where turnovers were once again a critical factor.
Both coaches had said that "limiting turnovers" and "holding onto the football" would be keys for their teams and that was surely the case as two of Notre Dame's TDs came after Polk County turnovers while the Wildcats returned their only interception for another score.
The Wildcats pretty much dominated the first half statistically, but the Irish were able to cash in following a fumble recovery in the final minute of the second quarter to force a 7-7 tie at intermission.
For the game, Polk County had four turnovers -- three fumbles and an interception -- while Notre Dame had two, including a fumble and an interception.
Notre Dame only had 83 yards total offense in the first 24 minutes and 71 of that came through the air, but once the Irish coaching staff made a few adjustments at the break, the second half belonged to those guys wearing the green and white jerseys.
Notre Dame coach Charles Fant was about as happy as anyone on the Irish sideline once the final horn sounded.
"Gentleman...," he addressed his team, pausing to somehow hide a huge grin that had covered his face, "...and then there were eight," he continued, referring to how many teams are still alive after the second round of the TSSAA playoffs.
"We never gave up, but this is what you get when you work hard. Polk County played us tooth and nail, but we were able to get the job done. But we aren't finished. We're on the third rung of that ladder and we have to keep working hard," he told his team.
Just what was said and done at the half that made such a difference in the final two quarters?
"Our coaches made some key adjustments at the break as they figured out what they were doing to stop us, but we were trying to rely too much on the big play. The turnover and touchdown right before the half was huge and then we started the second half with a nice scoring drive, but it doesn't matter who we play next as it's just another faceless opponent," Fant nodded.
Polk County fullback Zach Miller, who really punishes opposing defenses every time he pounds into the line of scrimmage, had a big first half with 134 yards on 17 carries, but the big man was limited to just 38 yards on nine attempts in the second half to finish with 172 yards for the game.
He had eight carries for 64 yards in Polk's opening drive and he finished it with a 17-yard run for the Wildcat's first TD of the night. Reno Wimberley's first of two extra point kicks gave the hosts a 7-0 lead with 6:59 left in the first quarter.
The rest of the half was more or less a punting contest, but the Irish won that battle as Polk was backed up to its own 4 with 57 seconds left in the half.
Miller got the handoff and bulled his way to the 9 before losing possession on a fumble that Robert Kidwell recovered.
It only took one play, but quarterback Alex Darras tossed a 9-yard TD pass to Kareem Orr and all of a sudden the game was tied following Darras' PAT.
Matthew Hammons recovered a Notre Dame fumble on the first play from scrimmage in the second half, but Orr returned the favor when he intercepted an option pass from Chris Wimberley on the next play.
Taking over at their own 38, the Irish needed just six plays to march those 62 yards and they took the lead on a keeper from the 1 by Clay Hetzel.
All of a sudden, the momentum had shifted a little bit more to the Notre Dame side, but things changed on the next possession when Polk's Corey Swallows intercepted a Hetzel pass and returned it 63 yards for the tying touchdown with 2:57 left in the third quarter.
It didn't stay even long as Notre Dame took the lead for good when Auston Banks scored ona run from the 2 with 12 seconds left in the quarter for a 21-14 lead.
The Irish added a 27-yard field goal by Darras with 2:39 to play in the game to seal the victory.
Banks was the leading rusher for Notre Dame with 88 yards on 19 carries, including a long of 48 early in the second half that moved the ball from the 50 down to the Polk County 2. Hetzel scored two plays later.
Hetzel, who did an admirable job of quarterbacking the Irish when Darras was hurt earlier in the year, came through in the clutch on Friday and he even came back strong following the interception return tha tied the score.
"My coach just told to keep my head up and that's what I tried to do. Everything turned out great as we've never been this far before. We just gave it all we had," the senior smiled.
Polk County coach Derrick Davis, surely one of the classiest coaches involved in high school football, came over to the Notre Dame gathering when the game ended and personally congratulated the team on a great effort and wished them the best the rest of the way.
"That's a tough one to lose," Davis said a little while later in the quietness of his office.
"I hate that it's over for our seniors, but we've had a great season and have absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Notre Dame has an outstanding team and I knew it would come down to a handful of plays. Unfortunately for us, Notre Dame made most of the big ones.
"That turnover right before the half really hurt. That was a real punch in the gut as we were just trying to run the clock out. What an inopportune time to have a turnover. I know that Zach feels terrible about losing two fumbles tonight, but I can assure you that we wouldn't have been playing this game tonight without him this year.
"This is another example of another chapter closing in their lives, but there will be more opportunities on down the road. Notre Dame was just the better team tonight. They did what they had to do to win and that's why they're moving on," Davis added.
Notre Dame finished with 311 total yards while Polk countered with 226.
The Irish had 164 yards rushing after gaining just 12 in the first half. And Darras completed 10 of 15 passes for 145 yards.
Chris Hornsby had four catches for 38 yards while Orr had two for 55, including a long of 44 late in the third quarter when he simply outjumped the Wildcat defender before coming down with the leaping catch.
Banks had a pair of catches for 40 yards, including a 38-yard play on Notre Dame's first play from scrimmage.
Miller finished with 172 of Polk's 214 rushing yards and he also caught a pass for 10 yards.
Notre Dame also had a 13-11 advantage in first downs.
Polk County had beaten Notre Dame on this same field back on Oct. 11 by a 12-10 score. The Irish have now reeled off four straight wins since that date. The Wildcats end their season at 9-3.
NOTRE DAME 0 7 14 3 -- 24
POLK COUNTY 7 0 7 0 -- 14
PC -- Zach Miller 17 run (Reno Wimberley kick), 6:59 left in first;
ND -- Kareem Orr 9 pass from Alex Darras (Darras kick), 0:33.1 left in second;
ND -- Clay Hetzel 1 run (Darras kick), 8:25 left in third;
PC -- Corey Swallows 63 interception return (Wimberley kick), 2:57 left in third;
ND -- Auston Banks 2 run (Darras kick), 0:12,2 left in third;
ND -- Darras 27 field goal, 2:39 left in fourth.
(Email John Hunt at email@example.com)