BENTON, Tenn. - Big plays right before halftime are often big factors in the outcomes of football games. and that was the case in Friday's TSSAA Class 3A playoff game at Polk County.
With less than a minute to play in the first half, Polk County went from being up a touchdown to tied. And although that wasn't the final tie score of the night, the Wildcats never recaptured the lead and Notre Dame came away with a 24-14 victory.
The Fighting Irish (9-3) play at Upperman in the third round.
Polk County (9-3) had the opening possession and marched down the field for a 7-0 lead. The Wildcats did not throw a pass on the 12-play drive that Zach Miller capped with a 16-yard run and left Notre Dame coach Charles Fant plenty concerned.
"The first drive almost demolished us," Fant said. "I think they had one fourth down. They just ran it 83 yards. Our adjustments our defense made even before the half and at the half were big. Our coaches earned their money tonight."
But that early TD was the only score until 33 seconds remained in the second quarter.
Notre Dame punter Chris Hornsby had his 51-yard punt downed on the 4-yard line with 57.6 seconds to go in the half. The Irish had two timeouts remaining, and Polk County coach Derrick Davis didn't want quarterback Josh Silas taking a knee.
"They had come close to blocking every punt we had," Davis said. "We were just trying to kill some time and create some room."
Instead Silas handed off to Miller, who fumbled on first down and Notre Dame recovered. Quarterback Alex Darras hit Kareem Orr for a 9-yard touchdown pass on the first play afterward, and the teams went to halftime 7-7.
"It was huge," Fant said of the turn of events. "The kids were starting to feel down a little bit."
After a Clay Hetzel 1-yard run at 8:25 of the third quarter gave Notre Dame its first lead, the Wildcats pulled back to a tie on Corey Swallows' 63-yard interception return. He intercepted Hetzel, who played some quarterback in Notre Dame's wildcat package.
"What's so beautiful about this game is I told him he'll have another chance to make a difference, and he had three or four unbelievable runs on that last drive that got us that field goal," Fant said.
The game was a rematch from Oct. 11. Polk County won 12-10 that night. But Notre Dame was without running back Auston Banks, who was a difference-maker this time with 20 carries for 94 yards and the go-ahead touchdown run. Darras made a 27-yard field goal with 2:39 to play, and Robert Murphy's ensuing fumble recovery sealed it.
Miller, whom Notre Dame leading tackler Tyler Enos called "a tank," ended up with 164 yards on 26 carries but fumbled twice. His final effort put him over the 2,000-yard mark for the year.
"We wouldn't be here tonight if it wasn't for him." Davis said. "Everybody made mistakes, including me. A lot of things contributed to tonight's loss."
"I thought we had a great year. We were fortunate enough to be in a close game with them last time. We give them credit. They were the better team tonight. They did what they had to do, and that's why they're moving on."
Contact Kelley Smiddie at email@example.com or 423-757-6653. Follow him at twitter.com/KelleySmiddie.