TUCSON - Down 14-0 and in hostile territory, Notre Dame could have mailed it in.
The Saints could have said the heck with it. We had a nice late-season run and made the playoffs, but we've met our match.
Not this team. Not with thoughts of their ailing head coach swirling in their heads.
Instead of letting up, Notre Dame let loose on host Salpointe Catholic Friday night, scoring 33 unanswered points to blow past the Lancers 33-14 in a Division II first round state playoff game.
"Our team knows Coach (Scot) Bemis is the heart and soul of our football team," said senior quarterback Jordan Gehrke, who fought through swirling, gusting winds to throw for 270 yards and five touchdowns. "We wanted to win this one for him."
Bemis, out since mid-September after revealing he has cancer, would have been proud of the fight his players showed against No. 3 Salpointe (9-2), which rolled through nine straight foes following a season-opening 1-point loss to Chaparral.
The 14th-seeded Saints (7-4) showed no panic when they fell behind 14-0 early in the second quarter, mostly because Salpointe took that lead on a pair of broken plays, defensive coordinator Gary Gregory said.
"We didn't drive all the way down here to give up after being down 14 points," Gregory said.
Instead, Notre Dame got things started with a simple short out route to junior receiver Maurice White, who slipped away from his initial tackler and burst upfield for a 61-yard score to cut Salpointe's lead to 14-7.
"One play at a time, that's what we go by," said White, who finished with four catches for 140 yards and three TDs.
Then, after junior linebacker Luke Taffuri stuffed a Salpointe runner on 4th-and-1 at midfield, White caught a 36-yard TD pass from Gehrke after getting behind the Lancers defense. A missed extra point, though, kept Notre Dame down 14-13.
The second half was all Saints, thanks to Gehrke's ability to find huge holes in the Salpointe defense. First came a 37-yard TD pass to Smith to put Notre Dame up 20-14 early in the third quarter. Then late in the third, he put up a sweet 9-yard fade pass to junior Grant Martinez to make it 26-14.
The win was cinched with 9:05 left in the fourth quarter when, after Notre Dame called a timeout to discuss a 3rd-and-9 from its own 32, Gehrke rolled left, heaved the ball deep into the wind and had it land almost effortlessly in the hands of tight end Hunter Boss for a 68-yard score.
"Our receivers ran some great routes, our line gave me time and I just put it up there," Gehrke modestly said. "They did all the hard work."
Salpointe, which came in outscoring opponents 41-10, took its early lead on the arm and legs of sophomore quarterback Andrew Cota, who completed five of his first six passes and also scampered around for a 60-yard TD run that gave the Lancers their 14-0 advantage.
Cota couldn't keep that rhythm going after the first 15 minutes, though, and not having star receiver Cameron Denson - who was suspended for the game after being ejected from last week's regular season finale - showed in his lack of reliable pass catchers.
Denson was one of four starters missing Friday for Salpointe, the other three out due to injury. Coach Dennis Bene said that played a role in the result, but not as much as Notre Dame's effort.
"They beat us in every facet of the game," Bene said. "It wasn't our night."