Tom Batters

About 200 Peoria Notre Dame fans stood and applauded their team seconds after the game ended Friday night.

The Irish lost, 27-25, at Limestone, but the game did not feel like a loss. It felt more like a moral victory, said senior defensive end Jacob Eppel, who returned an interception for a touchdown on the second play of the game.

“This was the best game I’ve been involved with since I’ve been at Notre Dame,” Eppel said. “We lost, but we battled back and we competed so hard. We didn’t quit. We’re going to build on this game.”

After Notre Dame kicker Bill Dixon missed a 35-yard field goal with 10 seconds left that would have won the game for the Irish, several players rallied around him. They patted him on the helmet and hugged him. First-year Notre Dame coach Tom Gullickson also offered his encouragement.

“That kick didn’t lose the game for us,” he said. “We just ran out of time. I’m very proud of our players. They made a statement tonight. Notre Dame football is back. We’re not going to be a push-over anymore. We’re going to compete.”

The Irish trailed, 21-13, at the end of the third quarter, but they did not back down.

Senior tailback Luke Garrison started the fourth quarter with a 70-yard run to the Limestone 5-yard line. A few plays later, on fourth down and three yards to go, junior quarterback Mike Habecker ran in for a touchdown.

Garrison limped off the field with a leg cramp, but his game was far from over.

After Limestone scored with 7:30 left, Garrison broke free for a 44-yard run to the Limestone 1-yard line that set up a Jake Heid touchdown to make it a 27-25 game.

“Luke is one of the finest backs in this area,” Gullickson said. “He gave us everything he had tonight. He deserves a lot of credit for hanging in there after that cramp.”

Garrison had 222 yards rushing on 19 carries. Heid had 90 yards on 22 carries.

It appeared that time was running out for the Irish with 2:07 to go. Limestone was driving on offense when ND’s Drew Eppel recovered a fumble at the Limestone 34-yard line.

Garrison and Heid each ran for first downs to keep the Notre Dame hopes alive. The Irish got down to the 20-yard line with 10 seconds to go and no time outs left when Gullickson ordered the field goal unit to scramble out onto the field.

Dixon’s kick went straight toward the uprights, but landed just a few yards short.

“We gave them some easy scores early in the game, but we made some adjustments at halftime and we battled hard on the second half,” Gullickson said.

The Irish had 10 penalties, including two illegal procedure violations on the first play after a time out. Back-to-back penalties in the first quarter that took them out of a scoring chance and forced them to punt.

Dixon had two punts inside the Limestone 10-yard line and averaged 39 yards per punt for the game.

The Irish committed six turnovers (five fumbles and one interception). At times, their defense had trouble stopping Limestone’s passing attack. Limestone quarterback Tyler Best was 21 of 34 for 220 yards.

“We made our share of mistakes, but, it was our first game. We will get better,” Gullickson said.

Last year, Notre Dame lost to Limestone, 42-13, at Richwoods Stadium in front of a sparse crowd.

This year, Notre Dame fans packed the stands. Many wore green T-shirts and waved banners and signs.

“Last year, we were blown out,” Jacob Eppel said. “This year, we were in it until the very end. It’s going to be a better year for us. We can feel it. We’re not going to back down to anybody anymore.”