INDIANAPOLIS — For the first time this season, nervousness crept in.
Returning to the scene of their greatest triumph, the top-ranked Class 5A New Palestine Dragons walked through the tunnels at Lucas Oil Stadium and had a brush with doubt.
“A lot of memories came back, and there was actually a little bit of pressure to come out here and do the same thing,” New Palestine senior quarterback Alex Neligh said. “We didn’t want to come out here and blow it. We wanted to perform like everyone expects us to, so there was some tension.”
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The uneasiness all but vanished by the opening kickoff Saturday night as the Dragons routed the Pendleton Heights Arabians 84-17 and once again rewrote the school record books.
As the premiere game during the two-day Really Big Football Show showcase event, Neligh led the first team offense to 10 scoring drives in 11 series and the Dragons set a new single-game school record for points scored.
The previous mark was established at 83 points against Beech Grove in the sectional championship a year ago.
“We really executed the game plan,” Neligh said. “I’d be happy with 10-0. A win’s a win. Breaking records is cool and all, but we just want to win.”
Neligh did his part.
The second-year starter completed 13 of 17 pass attempts for 248 yards and three touchdowns and added 200 yards rushing and another three scores to propel the unbeaten Dragons (5-0) to a flawless 3-0 record in the Hoosier Heritage Conference.
His three touchdown passes catapulted him past his mentor, Blake Luker, for sole possession of the school’s career passing touchdown record at 43.
Neligh’s 248-yard performance was a career-best and leaves him only needing 104 more yards to become New Palestine’s career passing leader.
The record is still held by Justin Plummer at 3,610 yards (1997-99).
New Palestine reached the end zone in its first four possessions and was forced to punt once — only the second time this season.
They entered their 29th meeting with Pendleton Heights (2-3, 2-1 HHC) holding the blue print for efficiency, however, scoring on 30 of 32 possessions controlled by the first-team offense.
As has become the norm, the Arabians, like other teams this season, attempted to slow down the state’s top-scoring offense with newly-installed defensive packages.
The adaptable Dragons didn’t fall victim.
“We played against a lot of different fronts and things we haven’t prepared for at all. They brought a pretty nice game plan out to try to confuse us, and our kids did a tremendous job of adjusting well,” New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph said.
“We had to punt one time tonight because we got a 15-yard penalty that put us behind the chains, and then we missed a couple of things there, but all in all, we had a really good night offensively. I’m happy about it.”
The Dragons amassed 813 yards of total offense in the game, setting a single-game school record.
Rushing for 565 yards led by Neligh and running back Nick Brickens, the team set another single-game mark behind their steadfast offensive line.
Neligh’s longest touchdown run measured 55 yards, which put New Palestine ahead 63-3 early in the third quarter.
Brickens broke free for a 63-yard run late in the first half, setting up a scoring drive that he capped with a 1-yard plunge.
The Dragons fastest touchdown drive required a mere seven seconds (the quickest this season) with Neligh connecting with Brady Walden for a 49-yard pass to give New Palestine a 21-0 lead.
Of the Dragon’s 12 scoring drives, the longest was 1:37 and all of them combined required fewer than 100 seconds.
“We want to score a lot, but we were just playing. We weren’t going for the records,” said Brickens, who turned 10 carries into 169 yards rushing and three touchdowns. “I haven’t gotten too many carries, so when I do, I want to make sure they count, but we have a great quarterback, so we want the ball in his hands the most.”
Neligh’s 448 yards of total offense is the second-most in program history, surpassing Luker’s 471 against Pendleton Heights in 2013. More impressively, Neligh achieved the feat in less than three quarters.
He spread the ball around, finding three different receivers for scores (Duke Blackwell, Logan Greene and Walden).
Luke Ely’s 137 yards rushing gave the Dragons three 100-yard rushers. The freshman had two huge runs spanning 53 and 75 yards, the latter finalizing the team’s offensive tally midway through the fourth quarter.
Just another day at their second home, said Brickens, where the Dragons broke or tied 17 Class 4A state finals records in November when they beat New Prairie 77-42.
Now, it’s a matter of getting back for a team that has won 20 consecutive and 23 straight regular-season games.
“Tonight shows the type of chemistry we have as a group and have built on from last year,” Neligh remarked on the team’s fourth win in seven appearances at Lucas Oil Stadium. “The score was better the second time around, and a lot of new memories were made tonight.
“Hopefully, we can keep doing what we need to play here again (in November).”