The final quarter of the New Palestine Dragons’ football regular season was a microcosm of the previous eight weeks.
Facing adversity, the Dragons found a way to overcome in a 28-21 victory over Delta Friday at Kelso Stadium.
The Dragons stopped Delta twice in the red zone in the game’s closing minutes to seal the victory. Jack Johnson picked off a pass in the end zone with 51 seconds to seal the win – coming six plays after a long pass play on the same route. Earlier in the quarter, Aidan Ewers broke up a pass on fourth down to preserve the seven-point lead.
Johnson also recovered a fumble in the Dragons’ end zone to thwart a Delta scoring opportunity in the first half.
“What a night for him,” NP coach Kyle Ralph said of Johnson. “He had a lot of pass breakups, a couple of solo tackles on the perimeter, playing against a Division I quarterback who can almost put the ball anywhere he wants to. Earlier in the drive, he gives up a deep fade. He came over to the sideline, I told him ‘play confident and do what you’re coached to do and use the technique you know how to use.’ What a great play. To turn around and get the exact same route on the opposite side of the field in the end zone and to make a play like that, it was spectacular.
“He’s having an outstanding senior year. He’s had some big, big moments for us. Tonight, that was game-saving.”
5A No. 5 New Palestine finishes the regular season 7-1 and 6-1 in the HHC – the 11th time in the last 12 seasons NP has finished in the top two of the conference. In this one, the Dragons were outgained 416-310, but made key plays to seal the win.
Quarterback Lincoln Roth completed 9-of-14 for 102 yards – 54 to Blake Austin and 47 to Matt Brown, who returned to the lineup after a four-week absence.
The Dragons began the game with a 14-play, 90-yard march that featured a steady diet of freshman running back Grayson Thomas, who ran for 73 of his 108 yards on the possession. He capped it with a one-yard touchdown, the first of his two on the night.
Then, the game got wild. A punt by Delta’s Brady Hunt rolled out of bounds at the Dragons’ two yard line, and the Eagles’ Riley Woodin fell on a sack-fumble in the end zone to tie the game late in the first quarter. But NP’s Damon Hockett caught the ensuing kickoff on a dead sprint and returned it 70 yards for a touchdown to restore a seven-point NP lead.
After a Delta punt, Roth found Austin for a 34-yard swing pass, then Roth carried the ball 25 yards for a score to put NP up 21-7 midway through the second quarter. The Dragons’ offense featured a number of misdirection runs and moving Thomas, Austin and Brown into multiple spots.
“We started off the game with a significantly different offensive look than we’d been showing and it caught it off-guard,” Ralph said. “The problem right now is, when teams adjust, we’re not doing the other things really well offensively. We’re generating points. Last week (against New Castle), we had 21 at the half and only got seven after it. This week, we had 21 and only got seven after halftime. We’ve got to be able to do the fundamental things better.”
Delta cut the lead to 21-14 late in the second quarter on a 13-yard pass to Logan Manor. After forcing a three-and-out, the Eagles nearly tied the game after two long plays, but Hockett forced a fumble near the goal line, which Johnson recovered in the end zone.
NP extended the lead to 28-14 on the first drive of the second half, capped with a 15-yard run by Thomas. Delta answered on the ensuing possession and then drove into the red zone twice in the fourth quarter before Ewers’ and Johnson’s big plays on a Delta offense that had gained 128 yards through the air after halftime.
“The one thing we’ve got on our side is not luck, but it’s grit. We’ve got a lot of grit we’re finding ways to win games with. Injuries continue to mount. We’ve got youth all over the field,” Ralph said. “When it comes to playoff time, you’ve got to have a little grit and find ways to win football games. We came out hot tonight with a different gameplan and that got us a lead early, and we had a lot of grit to seal the game late.
“That’s a characteristic you can’t measure. We’re finding ways to get the job done. Our kids are tough and they play tough, and they’ve been rewarded with a lot of wins they probably shouldn’t have gotten because they do play hard and they don’t give up. I’m very proud of that.”
The Dragons open their Class 5A state title defense Oct. 30 at Kelso Stadium against Franklin in Sectional 14’s opening round.
Notes: Roth became the seventh player in school history to throw for 2,500 career yards as he threw for 102. He now has 2,590 passing yards. … Austin became the eighth Dragon to tally 1,000 career receiving yards. He now has 1,047 yards and moved past Keith Roseman (1,042) into seventh place on the career receiving list. He needs 21 yards to catch Todd Yoder (1,068) for sixth. … The Dragons have now won 11 of their last 12 games against Delta. … NP clinched second place in the HHC. Since 2009, NP has finished either first or second in the conference 11 times in that 12-year span, which includes nine titles. … The Dragons are 3-1 against ranked teams this season. … Grayson Thomas’ 108-yard game marked his fourth consecutive 100-yard game and his fifth of the season.
New Palestine 28, Delta 21
Friday, Oct. 16, 2020 at Kelso Stadium, New Palestine
Delta (6-2, 5-2 HHC) 7 – 7 – 7 – 0 — 21
New Palestine (7-1, 6-1 HHC) 14 – 7 – 7 – 0 — 28
NP-Thomas 1 run (Tanksley kick), 3:54
D-Woodin 0 fumble return (Griffis kick), 1:59
NP-Hockett 70 kickoff return (Tanksley kick), 1:51
NP-Roth 25 run (Tanksley kick), 7:35
D-Manor 13 pass from Hunt (Griffis kick), 2:50
NP-Thomas 15 run (Tanksley kick), 9:32
D-Hunt 4 run (Griffis kick), 6:21
First downs: D 23, NP 16
Rushes-yards: D 42-248, NP 48-208
Passing C-A-I: D 13-26-1, NP 9-14-0
Passing yards: D 168, NP 102
Total plays-yards: D 68-416, NP 62-310
Penalties-yards: D 6-40, NP 6-25
Fumbles-lost: D 1-1, NP 3-1
Punts-avg: D 3-42.3, NP 3-44.3
Time of possession: D 22:31, NP 25:29
Rushing: Conley 18-144, Hunt 22-100, Stitt 2-4
Passing: Hunt 13-26-1-168
Receiving: Manor 5-58, Edgerton 4-63, Stitt 3-40, Neu 1-7
Rushing: Thomas 27-108, Roth 17-72, Da.Spegal 1-23, Austin 1-7, team 2-(-2)
Passing: Roth 9-13-0-102, team 0-1
Receiving: Austin 4-54, Brown 4-47, Hockett 1-1