Twenty-four minutes away from a shocking and heartbreaking end to the first 9-0 season in school history, Batavia responded with 24 minutes of its finest football.
The result was 28 unanswered second-half points that turned a stunning 28-7 halftime deficit into a thrilling 35-28 comeback victory for the No. 1 seeded Bulldogs over a misleading No. 16 seed Notre Dame (5-5).
Six-foot-6 tight end Cole Gardner caught 3 touchdown passes in the second half while quarterback Noel Gaspari tossed 4 touchdowns and made several other key plays with his legs, a pair three-year varsity starters who made sure their careers didn't end in unthinkable fashion.
"I just thought I don't want to be done," Gardner said. "We have to do this, we have to keep it going. I remember how I felt after last year's first (playoff) game and it was the worst feeling. I didn't want that again."
Batavia (10-0) will host No. 8 Lake Forest (8-2), a 55-20 winner over Fenton, in the second round next week.
That didn't appear possible while Notre Dame quarterback Nick Pieruccini was hitting on 16 of 17 passes in the first half for 176 yards and 3 touchdowns, often scrambling to buy time for his receivers to get open and then finding them. His only incompletion came on a dropped pass.
"He's a scrambler, he's a heck of a quarterback and we've seen it on film," Batavia defensive lineman Alec Lyons said. "We had them covered, that's why he didn't get rid of the football, but while he's scrambling around, then he sees everything. He's a heck of an athlete."
Batavia compounded the problem with a pair of first-half fumbles and some costly penalties. The Bulldogs' first fumble led to a 19-yard touchdown pass on the next play by Pieruccini and a 7-0 Notre Dame lead with 5:48 left in the first quarter.
Chris James broke several tackles for a 79-yard touchdown run on Notre Dame's next play from scrimmage to make it 14-0 at the end of the first quarter. Other than that one long run, Batavia's defense held Notre Dame to 27 yards rushing.
That one-dimensional attack eventually caught up to Notre Dame but not until two more Pieruccini touchdown passes in the second quarter. The second of those came after he scrambled 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage and avoided heavy pressure to toss a 28-yard score that gave his team a 28-7 lead with 1:51 left in the second quarter. Also on that drive Batavia had held on third down only to be called for a personal foul.
"That's the way he's been all season," Notre Dame coach Mike Hennessey said. "We've been on his back the entire time. We were going to go as far as he can take us."
The second half was a different story as Batavia held Pierucini to 3-of-8 passing for 77 yards, 60 coming on one play. That was one of Notre Dame's two first downs in the second half while Batavia had 31 for the game, dominating play throughout the second half.
After a three-and-out to open the second half, Batavia scored touchdowns on its next four possessions to take the lead. Gardner started the scoring by reaching high for a 5-yard catch on a key fourth-and-goal.
Gaspari connected with Zach Strittmatter on a 26-yard touchdown on the next drive to bring Batavia within 28-21. Austin Higgins recovered a fumble on the ensuing kickoff, putting the Bulldogs offense back on the field in great field position to start the fourth quarter.
It took four tacklers to bring down Gardner on a 15-yard catch on a 3rd-and-13. Gaspari then looked Gardner's way again on the next play for a 13-yard touchdown over the middle. Brandon Clabough's extra point tied the game at 28 with 10:32 to play.
Batavia took its first lead 35-28 four minutes later on an identical 12-yard pass to Gardner. Earlier in that drive offensive lineman Zack Schoettes recovered a fumble to keep possession, then Evan Zeddies hauled in a 22-yard catch on 3rd-and-17.
Notre Dame finally hit on a big play on its next possession, a 60-yard pass to Joe Parrinello to give them first-and-goal at the 8. Two plays later, sophomore Mike Moffatt, burned for a touchdown earlier, made an interception in the end zone. He also had a fumble recovery in the first quarter.
"We just try to do our 1/11th we say," said Batavia's other sophomore starter Anthony Thielk, who contributed a 14-yard tackle for loss and a 3-yard touchdown run. "We can't do more than we can. That's what Moffatt did on his interception. That's what he was supposed to do is cover his man."
Batavia took over with 4:56 left in the game and proceeded to run out the clock including a 12-yard run by Gaspari and 3rd-and-11.
While Batavia dominated on the ground on that final drive, it was the passing attack that fueled the comeback. Gaspari hit on 22 of 33 attempts for 304 yards and no interceptions. Zeddies caught 7 passes for 75 yards, Strittmatter hauled in 5 catches for 70 yards and Gardner's 3 scores came on 6 catches for 105 yards.
"He's a tough kid to cover," Hennessey said of Gardner. "We were double covering but when you are 6-8 (actually 6-6) and you throw the ball up there it's going to be pretty difficult. He's a good player and I'm sure he's going to be a pretty good college player."
Like his team Batavia coach Dennis Piron was fired up after the comeback but knows the Bulldogs need a better start to keep advancing.
"We have to come out with a better sense of urgency next week," Piron said. "Our kids were nervous, they had the jitters. We needed to play the first half like the second half and I don't think it would have been in doubt."