The Notre Dame defense that showed up Friday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome was the same fast, unyielding and punishing group that got the Pios there, which meant Riverside Academy never really had a chance.
“We’ve won three state championships at Notre Dame since I’ve been here, and 14 points is the most we’ve scored,” Notre Dame coach Lewis Cook said. “It’s something that we’ve built our team around. ... We play defense, and we try to get enough offense to give ourselves a chance.”
The Pios were a wet blanket to the fire that was the Riverside Academy offense.
The Rebels averaged more than five touchdowns per game this season, but when the final seconds ticked away Friday, they had 135 total yards and three points. Notre Dame did just enough offensively to finish with a jubilant celebration as Division III select state champions after their 13-3 win.
It’s not like the Pios (14-0) have had to do much on offense this season. Notre Dame’s defense did things that just shouldn’t be possible in this offense-dominated era: It allowed 52 points over the course of the season. It shut out eight teams and gave up just 16 points after October — with a few of those points coming against the backups.
“Our starting defense gave up five touchdowns in 14 weeks,” Cook said.
But all that great defense would’ve been a footnote to the disappointing finish if the offense didn’t come through Friday.
The Pios took control in a crazy sequence of events in the final minute of the first half: All 13 of the Pios’ points came in a span of 13 seconds.
With his team trailing 3-0 with roughly a minute to go before halftime, Cook lined up to go for it on fourth-and-1 from his team’s 35. Riverside (11-2) took the onus off Notre Dame by jumping offside. And with a new set of downs, Cook dialed up a trick play — to great effect.
Quarterback Joe Faulk ran to his right and pitched back to Adam Berken on what looked to be a reverse. But Berken kept his eyes trained downfield and unleashed a deep pass to Boedy Borill. Borill reeled it in and broke a few tackles, sprinting toward the end zone before being dropped inside the Rebels’ 5-yard line.
Two plays later, Faulk rolled out and found Ethan Smith for a 3-yard touchdown strike with 18 seconds left in the half.
“Berken was a quarterback for two years before he moved out to wide receiver,” Cook said. “We weren’t throwing the ball a lot during the season, and I know it was kind of tough for receivers to block every play. I told Adam, ‘One day, I’m telling you, there’s somewhere during this season where you’re going to make a big play for us. Hang in there.’ ”
Then things got weird.
Riverside fumbled the ensuing kickoff return, and Notre Dame recovered at the Rebels’ 28-yard line. On the next play, Faulk zipped a pass to Borill near the pylon. At first glance, Borill looked well out of bounds, but the officials ruled him in, and a replay showed his toe on his trailing leg kicked up some turf inbounds.
“I just looked up and I saw it was a touchdown,” Borill said. “I didn’t really know where my feet were at the time, but I was happy they called it a touchdown.”
In a span of 14 seconds, Notre Dame had taken a 13-3 lead, which might as well have been a 100-3 lead considering the defense protecting it.
Early in the game, though, Notre Dame committed a couple of uncharacteristic miscues that made it appear more mortal than it had at any other point this season.
On the first offensive play from scrimmage, Faulk hit Borill on a quick pass to the flat, but Borill coughed up the ball and Riverside recovered.
On their next offensive possession, the Pios’ long snapper sent one sailing a little high for punter Austin Melancon. He handled the snap with one hand but was delayed long enough to allow Riverside to block the punt and take over at Notre Dame’s 13-yard line.
“It was a little nerve-wracking,” Faulk said. “That hasn’t happened all year. But I was really confident in our defense. I wasn’t too worried.”
Faulk had reason to not be concerned. Both times, the Pios’ vaunted defense held firm. Riverside actually lost 12 yards after the blocked punt and needed to be bailed out by kicker Tyler Gauthier, who drilled a 41-yard field goal for the Rebels’ only points.
The dominant performance gave Notre Dame its fifth state title and third under Cook, but there was a more important distinction Cook wanted to make afterward.
“The one thing that’s amazing is that every Notre Dame football player since 2000 has had a chance to play for the championship,” he said.
This group made the most of that chance.