The Irish needed no luck in ending East Ridge’s dream season Friday night at Finley Stadium in the Region 3/A State Quarterfinals.
A balanced offensive attack led by the passing of Alex Darras and the running of Akil Sledge lifted Notre Dame to a 55-27 win before about 3,000 chilly fans.
East Ridge puts the season in the books with a 12-1 record, the finest in the school’s seven decades of playing the sport. Notre Dame improved to 10-3 on the year and will suit up against Alcoa next week in the TSSAA State Semifinal game near Knoxville.
“Our school motto is ‘Home of the Proud,” East Ridge coach Tracy Malone said after the game. “How can you not be anything but proud of this team.”
Malone could have made excuses about the sound defeat: the game was moved from the friendly confines of Raymond James Stadium/Shanks Field to accommodate a big crowd; many of the players were plagued by a stomach bug, leaving them not at their best. But he didn’t.
“We just didn’t play very well on defense tonight,” he said. “We struggled in the secondary pretty bad.”
Darras, the Irish quarterback, slashed the Pioneer secondary for 270 yards, going 12 for 22 with three touchdowns He rushed the ball for 80 more yards and two scores. Notre Dame’s Sledge rushed 30 times for 130 yards and three touchdowns.
Notre Dame jumped out to a 27-0 lead as East Ridge came out flat. The Pioneers finally got on the board with a 54-yard touchdown run from Traneil Moore with 7:02 left in the half. The Orange faithful were given a glimmer of hope that this just might be a game when quarterback Eric Bennett hooked up with Jeremiah McKibben for a 66-yard scoring strike. C.J. Bond’s PAT cut the lead to 27-14 with 4:57 to go in the second quarter.
The momentum continued for East Ridge on Notre Dame’s next possession. A big kickoff return was brought back on a penalty and the Irish started from its own 11. The Irish mounted a drive but that was snuffed when Jordan Harvey intercepted a Darras pass on the East Ridge 19 yard line.
The Pioneers went backwards, however, as Moore was stuffed at the 7, and a procedure call backed the Orange up to the 2 yard line. A snap over the head of the Pioneer punter allowed the Irish to tack another two points on the board, and at the half it was 29-14, Notre Dame.
East Ridge would cut into that lead on the first possession of the second half. Marching from its own 20, the Pioneers took to the air. Bennett hit Jesse Jones for 30 yards to the Notre Dame 45, then went back to him three plays later for a 41-yard scoring strike, with a huge assist on a block by Tommie Stewart: Irish 28, Pioneers 21.
But that’s as close as East Ridge would come to extending its dream season.
Darras connected with Calvin Sims for a 27-yard touchdown, then his passing set up a 4-yard plunge by Sledge just before the end of the third quarter and Notre Dame’s lead was extended to 41-21.
There’s no give up in Malone’s crew, however. East Ridge stayed in the game as Jones took the ball left on a reverse at the Notre Dame 43-yard line. He cut back to the right for good yardage and when the Irish defense closed in, he cut back to the left to open field, covering about 85 epic yards in the 43-yard touchdown run. The big play gave those in orange some hope that the Pioneers were a team of destiny, and the 41-27 lead with an entire quarter left to play was not insurmountable.
Notre Dame and Darras had different plans. Starting on its own 38, Darras accounted for each and every one of the 62 yards scoring drive, running for 25 yards and passing for 37. He took it over from the Pioneer 1 yard line, then kicked the PAT, to extend the Irish lead to 48-27 with 10:25 remaining.
The Irish defense forced the Pioneers to punt on its next drive. Then it was Sledge’s turn to generate the Notre Dame offense.
Starting on its own 44, Sledge carried eight straight times over the left side of the Irish offensive line. He got Notre Dame to the Pioneer 1 where Darras punched it in with 1:57 left in the game. The drive took four minutes of the clock and East Ridge lost for the first time in 2015.
Malone said after the game that only one team in Region 3 will end the season with a win. That team just might be Notre Dame.