Notre Dame was a little better at not being stopped and a little better at containing East Feliciana Friday night in the 3A semi finals. The Pios grabbed the lead with a first quarter score and made the plays needed for a 16-14 win over the Tigers.
“I felt all along this game would be scratch and claw,” said Pios coach Lewis Cook. “There was a lot of talk about how much they were scoring, but I can’t say enough about the effort from our defense. Every time we have been in this position it has been because our defense has come up with big plays.”
Notre Dame kept the ball away from the explosive East Feliciana offense, grinding out over 30 minutes of possession time to the Tigers 17. The Tigers converted just 5 of 12 third down plays and turned it over three times.
Notre Dame failed to convert on those early scoring opportunities. The first came on the game’s second play when Hunter Stelly knocked the ball loose from receiver Timothy Scott after a short gain. Clint Faul recovered on the Tigers 30 yard line, but the Pios gave it back six plays later.
On their next possession, Notre Dame marched 65 yards in nine plays for a 7-0 lead. QB Brad Stoma worked his magic on third and seven from the Tigers 38, finding John Michael Besse out of the backfield for a 16 yard completion.
Two plays later, Stoma went over the middle to fullback Austin Thibodeaux for 16 yards and a first and goal at the four. Besse popped around left tackle on the next play finding the end zone from four yards out.
East Feliciana answered with Kendall Beckwith completing a 17 yard pass to Danny Johnson after the ensuing kickoff. On the next play, Beckwith threw short to Scott and Matt Venable put a helmet on the ball to force a fumble recovered by Kipp Credeur at the Tigers 34.
Stoma was sacked on fourth down by D’Quan Franklin at the Tigers 30. The second turnover of the quarter in Tigers territory again failed to produce points and was of concern for Pios Coach Lewis Cook.
“We forced them to throw quickly with our pass rush and got a couple of turnovers out of it. We just couldn’t take advantage of them. We made the field longer for them, but I was worried not getting points off those early fumbles would come back to haunt us and it almost did.”
The defensive stop energized East Feliciana and a late hit penalty on the next possession put the Tigers in position to crack the scoreboard. QB Kendall Beckwith scrambled out of the pocket for 11 yards and a first down at the Pios 17.
Beckwith then tossed a slip screen to Danny Johnson angling in from the right side. The junior receiver sliced through the Pios secondary for a touchdown with 10:53 to go in the half. The extra point was blocked and Notre Dame held on to a 7-6 lead.
After a change of possessions, a short 22 yard punt set the Pios up on the East Feliciana 35 yard line. Two plays later, receiver Nick Benoit found a seam in the Tigers secondary and QB Stoma connected on the quick slant for a 39-yard catch and run touchdown to make it 13-6.
“Nick has worked so hard to put himself in a position to make plays and contribute,” added ND coach Cook. “He had a couple of rough spots early in the season, but he has really come on to be an important part of our team.”
East Feliciana threatened before the half with Corey Hawkins coming in at quarterback to complete two passes to mid field. Defensive back Sam Veillon intercepted at the Pios 28 to preserve a 13-6 halftime lead for Notre Dame.
“You tend to forget sometimes how quick and explosive teams like this can be,” continued Cook. “They were probably a step quicker than us and our guys just showed a lot of perseverance with technique and hard play.”
The third quarter was pretty much a standoff with the teams exchanging three possessions each. Punting on the first play of the fourth quarter, East Feliciana pinned the Pios at the Notre Dame 10 yard line.
“We couldn’t get anything going in the third quarter,” said Cook. We couldn’t make a first down, but our defense just kept them from getting anything until we could get it going.”
Notre Dame kept the ball for over seven minutes on a 12-play drive to the East Feliciana four. Luke Broussard broke two tackles on first down for a 19-yard run.
On third and four, Brad Stoma faked the dive and ran 10 yards for a first down at the Pios 44. Broussard carried two more times for another first down before consecutive holding penalties saw Notre Dame facing first and 30. FB Austin Thibodeaux gained two on first down to set up what is probably the play of the year for Notre Dame.
Stoma, who completed 7 of 15 passes for 135 yards, dropped back and watched as Nick Benoit broke clean toward the sideline near the Tigers 20 yard line. Stoma dropped the pass in near the Pios bench and Benoit reached out for a finger tip catch that covered 39 yards for a first down at the East Feliciana six yard line.
“It was a corner route, nothing special, just a play we felt good about in that situation,” said Benoit. “We just put trust in our quarterback, put the game on his shoulders and he made a great throw. I just had to make sure I came up with the catch.”
East Feliciana stiffened on defense and the Pios played it safe with the clock inside six minutes to play. Dustin Reiners booted a 21 yard field goal with 5:01 left for a 16-6 lead.
“The throw and catch to Nick after we got penalized and had first and 30, what a play,” Cook said shaking his head. “Brad (Stoma) stepped up and Nick (Benoit) made a heck of a catch. The way our defense was playing, that play right there got us the field goal by Dustin (Reiners) and that’s the reason we are making a trip to the Dome.”
But not without a nervous finish. East Feliciana returned the kickoff back to the Pios 28 and was right back in business with 4:53 left to play.
“We felt the key for us to have a chance in the game was to not allow any big plays,” offered Cook. “Their biggest plays were the kickoff returns.”
Dustin Reiners kicked off high and short down the middle of the field. EF sophomore Tim Thompson took the kick at the 31, saw coverage run past the returner, and Thomson brought it back to the Pios 28.
“We wanted to sky kick across the field and missed it down the middle,” Cook said. “You don’t want to know what I said to myself, but it wasn’t nice. I was just hoping we could get them on the ground and try and make them use up a bunch of time if they were going to score.”
It took East Feliciana seven plays and a precious two minutes to capitalize on the special teams play. Beckwith was sacked for a 10 yard loss on first down by Chad Gibson, who had a big game on the Pios defensive front with 7 solo tackles including 2 sacks and three tackles for loss yardage.
Beckwith kept the Tigers hopes alive with a 22-yard scramble on third and 17 to the Pios 13. On fourth down at the five, Beckwith threw into the end zone for Danny Johnson. Pios linebacker Kipp Credeur tipped the ball away, but into the hands of Corey Hawkins. Beckwith ran in the two point conversion, cutting the Pios lead to 16-14 with 2:28 to play.
Beckwith was a big topic of discussion coming into the game after a one man show in the quarterfinal win over Farmerville. The LSU commitment finished with 76 yards rushing on 14 carries and completed just 12 of 27 passes for 93 yards. Beckwith totaled 169 of East Feliciana’s 182 total yards of offense on the night.
“They ask the kid to do so much,” noted Cook. “He plays every down and that is amazing. There are a lot of guys out there with talent like his, but sometimes they don’t play with the heart and passion like he does. That was impressive to me, how hard he plays. He is a phenomenal player and he will make someone a heck of a football player.”
The Tigers appeared to have executed their sky kick with a recovery near mid field. However, the kick was airborne and was not bounced off the ground. As such, the return team is afforded the right to catch the kick and the Tigers were penalized for kick catch interference when Pios players were knocked away prior to making the catch.
Notre Dame took over at their 41 and Austin Thibodeaux powered for eight yards on second down. Thibodeaux led the Pios with 84 yards rushing on 16 carries. Brad Stoma kept on third and inches for a first down to seal the 16-14 win and a date with Parkview in the 3A State championship game.
“I’m just so proud of our kids and happy for those guys that have been in the program working so hard and haven’t had the opportunity to make the trip to the Dome. As the last remaining Acadiana area team in the playoffs, we are glad to be able to keep the streak going.”