CLARKSBURG — Through the years, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish have made their name on offense.
In Friday night’s 28-20 victory over Tucker County, it was the defense that came up big time and time again.
“The defense was huge,” Notre Dame coach Sam Alvaro said shortly after the victory. “Twice (the defense) stopped them in the red zone. It would have been easy for them to just put their heads down but they didn’t. They fought from the beginning of this game to the end and I am so proud.”
It also didn’t hurt that the Irish got a little bulletin board material earlier in the day, as Alvaro explained.
“Listening to the radio today, their radio announcer that does Tucker County and Tygarts Valley said that their offensive and defensive lines were going to own the line of scrimmage,” he recalled. “Well, I think our lines played pretty well today. They also said that that quarterback was better than mine. That’s not true. I wouldn’t trade any one of my kids for anyone in the state single-A through triple-A. These kids don’t give up, they fight to the end and I am do proud of them.”
The Fighting Irish defense forced a pair of turnovers while holding the Mountain Lions to just 3.3 yards per carry, paving the way for Notre Dame to outgain Tucker 359-317 on the night.
Both teams struggled to finish what looked to be promising drives through the first 24 minutes of action; on the game’s opening possession, the Irish chewed 8:16 off of the clock and marched the ball all the way to the 2-yard line before a costly penalty backed them up and indirectly forced a turnover-on-downs. Tucker, on the other hand, sputtered out in the red zone twice, turning the ball on downs inside the Notre Dame 10-yard line on a pair of posessions.
At the 2:33 mark of the second quarter, the Irish finally broke the stalemate when Sam Romano beat single coverage on a go-route and hauled in a Nate Helm pass for a 33-yard score to give Notre Dame a 6-0 lead. Ironically enough, the long score came on a fourth-and-16 play.
The second half saw the Irish defense tighten again, as the Mountain Lions drove the ball all the way to the 21-yard line before several green jerseys corralled a Tucker runner in the backfield on a 4th-and-3 attempt. Notre Dame would then methodically move the ball down the field, setting up a 30-yard Brent Robinson run to extend the lead to 12 before Helm completed the ensuing two-point conversion to Jaidyn West to stretch the lead to 14-0.
On the next Tucker possession, the Mountain Lions offense finally broke out of its cage, using three Ben Callaway receptions and a questionable pass interference call on West to move the ball deep inside Irish territory. Tucker quarterback William Hood scored on a keeper to cap off the nine-play, 48-yard scoring drive and cut the deficit in half.
Tucker forced a three-and-out on the following possession and took over at the Irish 34-yard line shortly after. From there, it took just six plays to march down the field and tie things up on a 9-yard scamper from Cole Rapp.
Desperately needing an answer, the Irish came up big. West returned the ensuing kickoff to the 45 before Helm led a scoring drive in which he completed passes to four different receivers. The final throw of the drive was a little behind Romnano, who made an excellent adjustment to haul in a 3-yard score on a slant route with 6:37 remaining in the fourth quarter. Helm scored on a sneak on the two-point conversion to give the Irish a 22-14 advantage.
Tucker wasted little time answering, however, as Ben Cromer gained separation on a corner route and hauled in a 63-yard score on the first play of the next drive. The Mountain Lions were unable to get a push on the offensive line on the two-point conversion, however, and the 22-20 score stayed in tact.
The two teams traded empty possessions with the time winding off the clock before Notre Dame scored the game’s final touchdown with under two-minutes remaining, as Gabe Lopez rumbled in from 5-yards out for the game’s final score. The biggest play of the drive came right before, though, when Helm found Romano for a 27-yard gain in the middle of the field on a third-and-7 conversion.
“To be honest with you it wasn’t (a tough decision to pass),” Alvaro noted. “Coach (Jordan) Miller was standing beside me and he said, ‘We can get them on the pass’ and I said ‘Let’s do it.’ I have all the confidence in the world in my kids and our coaches.”
Tucker moved the ball into Notre Dame territory on the final drive, but Hood was sacked twice by a swarming Irish defense.
After the game Alvaro reflected on an up-and-down season that saw the Irish finish 5-5.
“I’m proud of these kids,” he noted. “They battled. It would have been easy to be 3-7 after Webster County beat us, but these kids buckled down, came out against Clay-Battelle (in a 57-0 win a week ago) and that carried into tonight. If we get the opportunity to be in the playoffs, we don’t expect anything less.”