Marcel Marquez was magical when he touched the football and defensive tackle Alex Puccinelli played like a raging bull Friday night as Sherman Oaks Notre Dame moved to within one victory of its first unbeaten season in school history by defeating Palmdale, 35-16, in a Southern Section Division III semifinal.
Marquez rushed for 119 yards and two touchdowns in 10 carries and completed seven of nine passes for 89 yards and two touchdowns.
Puccinelli recorded his 19th sack of the season, forced a fumble, had one tackle for a loss, deflected a pass and forced Palmdale's Jacob McCravey to throw incompletions twice on hurried passes.
The victory at Notre Dame ends a series of frustrating playoff losses that eliminated the Knights (13-0) short of the final. Last year, they were upset in a quarterfinal by Palmdale. In 2000, they lost in overtime to Manhattan Beach Mira Costa in a semifinal. In 1999, Valencia eliminated Notre Dame in a quarterfinal on a desperation pass.
It's the first time since 1997 that Notre Dame qualified for the final, which was Justin Fargas' senior year. Fargas, USC's starting tailback, was on the sideline rooting for the Knights.
Marquez had a 33-yard touchdown run in which he started right, then reversed field and ended up in the end zone untouched.
He also broke off runs of 31 and 19 yards. He threw a 25-yard touchdown pass to Ian McMahon in the first half when the Knights took a 21-3 halftime lead.
"It's a real big step we took tonight," Marquez said.
McCravey completed 14 of 27 passes for 171 yards and one touchdown. He rarely had time to throw because of Puccinelli, who's following in the tradition of Travis Johnson (Florida State) and Tim Volk (Arizona), former Notre Dame defensive tackles who were sack masters.
Palmdale (11-2) closed to within 21-10 with 4:53 left in the third quarter on a 34-yard run by LaRon McIntyre. But Marquez halted any hopes of a Falcon comeback with a 19-yard touchdown pass to Collin Morgan in the fourth quarter.
Notre Dame has had three consecutive years of unbeaten freshman teams, and some of those players have begun to distinguish themselves on varsity. Notre Dame will play Lancaster Antelope Valley or Manhatta Beach Mira Costa, which play tonight, in the final Friday.