Devin Blakley got the message.
After its 14-0 first-quarter lead vanished into a 15-14 halftime deficit to Niles Notre Dame, Nazareth’s football team needed a big message and big-time plays.
Blakley provided both.
Blakley’s 46-yard return of the second half kickoff set the tone for the rest of the night, Nazareth beating Notre Dame 28-15 in a matchup of East Suburban Catholic Conference unbeatens in LaGrange Park.
“We can’t slow down in the second quarter, and they took advantage of it,” said Blakley. “We kind of just said, 'We get the ball back (to start the half) and let’s take advantage of that.'"
Nazareth coach Tim Racki sent a clear halftime message.
“I thought we were getting pushed around a little bit in that first half and not responding,” Racki said. “We talked about responding – we’re going to get pushed around again, and you have to fight back in this type of game.
“We practice enthusiasm, effort, to have fun, and I wasn’t seeing them have fun in the first half. They were feeling sorry for themselves. So it was not raw Xs and Os, but more about ‘What have we been working for. In life you’re going to get knocked down. Right now you’re in a battle. Start fighting back.’”
Blakley’s kick return began the counterpunch, and quarterback Zach Stevens followed three plays later with a 26-yard touchdown pass to Diamond Evans to put the Roadrunners (3-0, 1-0) ahead for good at 22-15 just 1:22 into the third quarter.
“Coach said we’re getting the ball (to start the half), so let’s take advantage of it and really get momentum moving,” Blakley said. “Our energy picked up on both sides of the ball. We had more communication on defense, and the offense started the move the ball a little more.”
Nazareth nicely endured one major scare. After a Notre Dame fumble recovery at the Roadrunners’ 6-yard-line with the score 22-15, Nazareth’s Cameron Leach got the ball right back by recovering a fumbled shotgun snap on the next play.
An 11-play, 83-yard Nazareth touchdown drive followed, and the lead was 28-15 with 11:32 left.
Quarterback Bobby Grimes had a 14-yard run and a 27-yard pass to Evans on that clinching drive, which Blakley (eight carries, 65 yards ) capped with an 8-yard touchdown run. Blakley also caught a 11-yard touchdown pass in the first half.
Splitting time at quarterback for the second week in a row, both Grimes (9-of-16 for 101 yards) and Stevens (5-of-10, 52 yards) threw touchdown passes.
“We’re trying to evolve it (the QB rotation),” Racki said. “Last week we went series to series. Now we’re trying a system with my call (of who’s in), whatever I’m feeling, and they’re on board with it. They’re team guys. It’s working out well.”
Nazareth’s defense also made things work late. After allowing 148 first-half rushing yards to Notre Dame’s Ty Gavin (including two touchdown runs), the Roadrunners held the Dons to 64 yards of second-half total offense. Notre Dame (2-1, 0-1) had just 10 yards in the third quarters, Gavin 16 second-half rushing yards.
“We just filled the gaps more and let the linebackers be more free,”Leach said. “That was really our mindset, fill those gaps and stop their run.”
Eduardo Gonzales’ fumble recovery in the end zone had put Nazareth up 7-0. Then after a second-quarter challenge erased their 14-0 lead, the Roadrunners answered in impressive fashion.
“This was all about will, attitude, effort and executing,” Racki said.“And fighting back.”
“It’s a really big win for us,” Blakley said. “It’s giving us confidence for the upcoming games.”