Key stretch near end of half lifts Notre Dame by Riverside Academy _lowres

Advocate photo by Buddy Delahoussaye-- Notre Dame's Austin K. Thibodeaux sacks Riverside quarterback Jared Butler in the Division III nonselect final Friday at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.

In 30 seconds, the Division III state championship was decided.

The combination of a gadget play, an uncharacteristic turnover and an explosion of offense in a game overwhelmingly dictated by defense allowed top-seeded Riverside Academy to give up 13 points to Notre Dame it could never make up.

With Notre Dame driving in the final minutes of the first half, wide receiver Adam Berken connected with Boedy Borill for a 45-yard gain on a reverse pass. Moments later, quarterback Joe Faulk found tight end Ethan Smith for a 3-yard touchdown to give Notre Dame its first points of the game.

On the ensuing kickoff, Riverside kickoff returner Jeremy Gibson coughed up a fumble to set up Notre Dame with an extra opportunity before the half.

The Pioneers capitalized, as Faulk completed his longest pass of the game — a 28-yarder to Borill — who managed to scrape his toes inbounds and inside the pylon to extend the lead to 13-3 with just four seconds remaining in the first half.

In a game where scoring came at a premium, that 30 seconds of chaos all but sealed Notre Dame’s third state championship under coach Lewis Cook, fifth overall, and the Crowley school’s first since 2009.

“They always come up with big plays. That’s how they are,” Cook said. “I told Adam that somewhere during this season, he’d have a big play for us. We’ve worked on it (the reverse pass). We’ve done it before, had some big plays. It’s something we practice a lot and felt we had to do something against these guys.”

Cook’s gamble paid off.

Stuck on the wrong side of it, Riverside coach Bill Stubbs wouldn’t blame his team’s first loss since Sept. 4 on a 30-second chasm.

“I don’t think that’s where we lost the football game,” Stubbs said. “I don’t think we executed quite like we have in the past.”

Stubbs makes a valid point.

Riverside high-octane offense averaged 33.5 points per game this season and topped the 30-point mark each of the last nine games. Five times in that span Riverside has scored more than 40.

Notre Dame, however, provided to the kryptonite to the Rebels offense by taking Brandon Sanders and the usually reliable rushing attack and forcing whoever was under center for Riverside to pass and pass quickly.

“I can tell they were superior,” Riverside quarterback Jared Butler said of Notre Dame’s defense in comparison to the other units he’s faced this season.

“The holes weren’t as big as usual. The windows were tighter than usual. They had a physical appearance.”

That physicality was made abundantly clear with five sacks and even more quarterback hurries.

Most Outstanding Player Shea Zaunbrecher drilled Butler late in the second quarter and forced the sophomore from the game. In his stead came incumbent Jordan Loving, who had not played a down yet this season, and Herb McGee.

Butler, Loving and McGee combined for 161 yards passing and two interceptions, as Riverside scored a season-low three points, and zero over the final three frames.

After falling behind 13-3 before the half, Riverside’s offense was relegated to figuring out the Notre Dame instead of executing. Once time expired, the Rebels still had no answers.

“We made a lot of mistakes,” Stubbs said. “It’s uncharacteristic of where we’re at. I felt coming out of the locker room, it was going to be a second-half game. We just couldn’t get in sync offensively.”