Nobody said making a deep playoff run would ever be easy.
Notre Dame’s Irish, or any other team still alive three weeks into the postseason, know the playoff hill gets steeper as it maneuvers toward the ultimate goal of claiming the school’s first Tennessee Secondary School Athletic Association state football championship.
Except for an unusual mismatch that pops up, the challenges become larger as the field grows smaller.
On Friday, the No. 3 seeded Irish (9-3) gained a measure of revenge by beating second-seeded Polk County, 24-14, to reach the Class 3A quarterfinals for the first time since 2005.
What was the Irish’s prize for avenging a 12-10 loss to the Wildcats during the regular season?
They get to play undefeated, state-ranked Upperman this week?
And if the Irish are to get the upper hand on the high-octane Bees they will certainly have to do something defensively no team has done this year – stop dual-threat quarterback Connor York.
“I’ve watched the whole Grundy County tape and started on another one,” Notre Dame’s sophomore linebacker Tyler Enos said Saturday. “(York) is a really good athlete. It seems like on every play he’s either throwing or running the ball. He’s the main focus of their offense.”
Enos, one of the area’s leading tacklers, was putting it mildly.
York IS Upperman’s offense.
In a 70-49 crushing of Tyner on Friday, York put up an amazing 711 total yards of offense and nine touchdowns.
York, a 6-foot-1-inch, 180-pound senior, rushed for 372 yards and five touchdowns. He passed for 339 yards and four scores.
In leading the Bees – they have only one winning season, this one, in the last 13 years – to 12 successive victories, York has piled up 4,442 yards and a near-record 67 touchdowns, breaking the single-season state record of 65 set by Charlie High of CAK in 2011.
York has put up 2,252 rushing yards and 33 touchdowns and 2,190 yards and 2,190 yards and 34 scores this season.
“Tyner played do-or-die defense, locked up in man coverage and that kid (York) hit some creases and just took it to them,” Irish coach Charles Fant said. “There were no drives, just big play after big play. He’s fantastic. He’s like a little Johnny Manziel.”
With York igniting an explosive offense the Bees field the state’s second-leading offense. They are tied with Greenville with 54.1 points per game, just behind Fulton’s 60.1-point average.
Twice this season Upperman has rushed for 400-plus yards in a game, 493 against Smith County topping the charts. On six other occasions the Bees have gained 300-plus rushing yards. They have two games with 300-plus yards passing.
Upperman, which last posted a winning season (6-4) in 2000, has averaged beating opponents by a 54.1-13.3 score this season. The 49 points Tyner scored is a season-high by an opposing team, but the Rams still lost by three touchdowns.
“They run the spread and are in the shotgun on every play,” Fant said. “They run 30 different formations, all based on the spread, and use four or five wide receivers and bring in a tight end to block for York. It’s hard to tell if they’re the best team we’ve played, but he’s the best quarterback we’ve seen this year by far.”
The Bees have another 1,000-yard rusher in running back Austin Butler and Robert Stephenson went into the Tyner game with 882 yards in receptions with 12 touchdowns.
During the season Upperman twice scored 60 points, five times had at least 50 and put up at least 40 in three other games. Forty-one points is the lowest total coach Ben Herron’s team has produced, that coming in a shutout win against Jackson County.
Fulton is the only team to score more points than Upperman did against Tyner in a playoff game thus far this postseason. Fulton beat Unicoi County, 74-0, in a Class 6A first-round rout.
So, that’s what awaits the Irish when they visit Upperman on Friday, which will be the Irish’s 11th appearance in the quarterfinals in the TSSAA playoff era.
“York doesn’t always throw the ball on time,” Fant said, “but he can kill you when he scrambles because he’s so talented. He sits back there and if you rush three or four guys you don’t have a chance. He’ll just keep the ball and go.
“He’s the real deal.”
The Irish spread the offensive wealth around. Sophomore quarterback Alex Darras triggers everything and can end drives by running, throwing or kicking field goals and extra points. Against Polk County, Darras threw a touchdown pass, kicked two extra points and added a 27-yard field goal.
Darras went 10-for-15 for 145 yards passing against the Wildcats.
Junior running back Auston Banks rushed for 88 yards on 19 carries, including a 48-yarder that went to Polk County’s 2 and set up Clay Hetzel’s touchdown run on the next play. Banks scored on a 2-yard run.
The Irish finished with 164 yards rushing after gaining only 12 yards in the first half.
Junior Kareem Orr is a talented receiver and his 9-yard touchdown reception got the Irish on the scoreboard in the Irish’s second-round win. He had two catches for 55 yards and Chris Hornsby added four receptions for 38 yards.
Notre Dame’s defense, led by Enos and linebacker teammate Kealey Green, a junior, gave up only one touchdown – Zach Miller’s 17-yard run with 6:59 left in the first quarter. The Wildcats’ second score came on Corey Swallow’s 63-yard interception return.
While the Irish average 28.3 points per game, they begrudgingly allow just 11.6. The single-game point production by an opponent this season was 22 by Knox Catholic in the season opener.
Upperman will seriously challenge that stat this week.
Is Upperman the best squad Notre Dame will have faced this season?
“I don’t know,” Enos said. “They are 12-0 but we’ve played a lot of good teams this year. I’m sure they’ll be one of the best teams we’ve played so far.”
Despite the impressive season Upperman has had to this point of the season, Notre Dame will go into the quarterfinal showdown.
“Our school has never won a state championship,” the 15-year-old Enos said. “We really want to get there. It will be really big if we get to the semifinals and it won’t bother us playing on the road again.”
Notre Dame last played a semifinal game in 2005, losing to Livingston Academy, 48-34. The Irish also reached the semifinals in 2004 and 1978, losing both times to Briarcrest (42-20) and Maryville (21-14), according to the Tennessee Prep Football Database website.
That 2004 Briarcrest team had an offensive lineman named Michael Oher, who later played collegiately at Ole Miss and is now with the NFL Baltimore Ravens. Oher was the subject of the movie Blindside.
TSSAA Third-Round Playoff Schedule
All Games Start At 7 p.m. Local Time
Cleveland (9-3) at East Hamilton (10-2)
Knox Catholic (9-3) at Hixson (9-3)
Notre Dame (9-3) at Upperman (12-0)
Silverdale Baptist (11-1) at Knox Grace (11-0)
Marion County (10-2) at Trousdale County (11-0)
Fayetteville (6-6) at South Pittsburg (10-1)
(E-mail Larry Fleming at firstname.lastname@example.org)