THE POST-SIGNAL / Jason Faul
Notre Dame’s Noah Bourgeois leaps over a player two weeks ago during the Pios’ 48-21 victory over Newman. The Pios will take on Catholic High of New Iberia tonight at 7 p.m. in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the Division III state title.
Rematch: Pios back in title game against Catholic High
It is rematch time in the Superdome!
And don’t let anyone from either side try to tell you this is not exactly what both sides were hoping for.
It has been 364 days since once beaten Catholic High spoiled the party for unbeaten, top seeded and top ranked Notre Dame in the 2017 title game.
We are right back to an eerily and almost identical lead up to tonight in New Orleans when the Pios and Panthers square off again for the Division 3 State Championship.
Notre Dame is again #1 at 12-0 and Catholic is 12-1, their only loss being a 49-0 thrashing by the Pios in week four of the regular season. Catholic High will try to justify that dramatic turnaround last December and prove it was no fluke. Notre Dame wants to show that it was just that with its third trip to the finals in four seasons.
“I’m sure there will be some spinning the game that way because it is Catholic High again and because of the way it went down last year,” said Notre Dame coach Lewis Cook. “Did they get that much better from week four? Are we more prepared to play? Last year they were a good football team prepared to play and we were not, partly because of what happened in the regular season. This team is focused on what is in front of them. This is the game they have to play to reach their goals.”
Catholic entered the game last year with three-year starter Diallo Landry at quarterback, a dual threat with over 1,600 yards passing, 17 TDs and one interception. Landry ran for 583 yards and 13 scores. Under center this season is senior Trey Amos, who was moved from cornerback, and has taken the Catholic Wing T back to a more run based attack. Amos has run for 1,480 yards with 29 touchdowns and has passed just 47 times in 13 games, completing 24 for 600 yards and 9 scores.
“In week four last year, they got in a lot of shot gun and backed Landry up to get him more involved,” explained Coach Cook. “This year they were more of a traditional Wing T and they stayed in it. The question is do they go back to what worked last year. We know and they know that #3, the quarterback Amos, is the guy that makes them go. Whatever they do, we have to keep tabs on Amos and not let him take over the game. We would think any wrinkles in his offense will have to involve Amos in the running game. Whether he backs up for zone reads in the gun or they use mis direction, we feel they will want to execute whatever gets him loose.”
Catholic only completed five passes in the Dome last year. It is likely that if the Panthers do go to the air their target will be UL commitment Peter Leblanc (6-2, 180). The senior receiver has moved inside to a wingback spot this year where he has rushed for 648 yards and 9 TDs. He has slipped out to catch 17 of the team’s 24 with 8 touchdowns. Of the 446 yards receiving, Leblanc has tacked on 261 of those after the catch.
“He may try to throw it to loosen things up against us and we have to be prepared for that, but they haven’t relied on the pass. They felt they were better than us last year, so we’ll throw caution to the wind and be ready for what they might try and make adjustments from there.”
Also departed from the title team of last year is tailback Jaden Stokes. The speedster averaged just under twelve yards a carry and scored 20 TDs in gaining 1,257 yards. He rushed for 129 yards and a 50-yard TD in the Dome.
Leading the ground game this season with QB Amos is junior Trey Henry (5-11, 185) and senior Zoe Cormier (5-8, 160). Henry has rushed for 1,126 yards and 19 touchdowns. Cormier has run for 704 yards and ten scores.
“Stokes was quick to the hole and that made him good in the Wing T offense,” adds Coach Cook. “The guys they have this year are both a little bigger and are long striders. They take a couple of steps to get going. They may not have that initial quickness, but they can run. You don’t want to let them get started because they are hard to catch once they get going.”
Defensively, the Panthers were limiting opponents to 15 points a game going into the semifinal matchup with Country Day. The Panthers escaped that game in a wild 57-54 track meet. The Panthers base out of the unique 3-3 stack defense. It did not slow down Notre Dame in either regular season game the past two seasons but was a problem in the Dome last year.
“The 3-3 puts six guys between the tackles which makes it a challenge for the inside game,” noted Coach Cook. “Noah and C.J. were able to pop some runs inside when we played in week four and if they commit that many guys close to the line, we may be able to get some throws in. We expect there will be some variation for them to try and get a little more leverage on the perimeter. We have practiced for a lot of options and the bottom line is execution.”
Coach Cook is taking his 10th team to the finals in this his 22nd year at Notre Dame. The Pios have rolled with the ground game this season if for no other reason than opponents have simply been unable to stop them.
Senior Noah Bourgeois has rushed for 1,538 yards, the first Pios thousand-yard rusher since 2012. Bourgeois has scored 23 touchdowns, gone over a hundred yards in a game eight times and is the Pios second leading pass receiver with 18 catches for 264 yards and two scores.
Junior C.J.Thibodeaux missed the first two games and still logged 740 yards and 11 TDs. A plus for the running game has been junior quarterback Ben Broussard offering a third option with 367 yards and 11 scores.
“We are a lot less of a true I and more of a pro I this year,” details Cook. “The I is not suited for their 3-3 defense. There are more things we can do now with things like two tight ends and our wide receivers that stretches the defense. Last year, Collin Kirsch made some good runs for us. But looking back, our best plays came with Noah running the ball. He was probably the most effective back we had last year. We ran some things last year with the purpose of seeing their alignments against our formations and we got hit in the backfield a lot with things that weren’t working. We want to do the things that insure it doesn’t happen again.”
Don’t be fooled by the emphasis on running the football. Quarterback Ben Broussard has proven a capable passer when asked to throw. He has completed 61 of 96 passes for 1,229 yards with 13 TD passes and only three interceptions.
Senior Kaizer Lamm leads the receivers with 20 catches for 415 yards and three touchdowns. Tight end Thomas Bellard has been a big play artist with 423 yards on 16 receptions, an average of 26 yards a catch, and four touchdowns.
And all of this begins up front. The Pios have rushed for 3,322 yards averaging 276 a game. Add in the passing yards and total offense of 3,599 yards is third all time at Notre Dame with three less games played.
“I think back at some past years and ask how did we win some of those games,” laughed Cook. “This offensive line has really been a key for us. They are aggressive, and they get downfield quickly to lead our runners. We haven’t had this kind of line play in a while and we’ve had some good players. This year, we won a lot of battles up front. When you look at what Noah and C.J. have done against the same schedule as last year it is pretty obvious. Having those two guys running behind them has opened up more possibilities for us.”
Defensively, the Pios have met every challenge. Opponents have scored just 126 points, 10.5 per game, and averaged 189 yards a game. Keep in mind starters were rarely in the game after the third quarter.
Senior Cody Leblanc has had a season in the tradition of Pios middle linebackers, leading the team with 72 tackles. Jacob Dore and Zeke Petitjean had 48 and 53 tackles and two interception each from their safety positions. Cornerbacks Stephen Cormier and Kane Bergeron have been tested and stood tall with a combined 17 pass breakups and each grabbing an interception.
Up front, defensive ends Luke Valdetero and Tylan Turner have been a terror for defenses. Valdetero has been a hand full off the edge with 42 tackles, three sacks, 21 QB hurries and a safety. Turner has made 63 tackles, 4 sacks, a 58-yard interception return and 19 QB hurries.
Tackle Joe Pommier has a team leading 5 sacks in his 31 tackles and ten of those for a loss. Together with Hayden Adams and Daniel Gielen, the trio has stuffed the middle. Linebackers Dennis Hensgens (24 T) and Gabe Link (17T) have missed games with injury but are back healthy for the Dome and make this Pios defense a problem for any opponent.
“The mindset of this team is totally different than the group we went in with last year,” summed up Coach Cook. “These guys are determined to not let happen what did last year. We practiced five days straight heading into the game last year. We lightened up this time around. We’ll be fresher, much more focused and ready to play.”
The rematch! All we need now is a kickoff!