NEW CASTLE — When it pertains to victory, nothing trumps absolute truth for New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph. On Friday night, with his team huddled in front of him and victorious, Ralph delivered a thorough assessment.
“Your clock is ticking,” Ralph barked out. “If that’s the effort you’re going to give the rest of the way, then your clock is ticking.”
With the scoreboard flickering behind them, blaring a one-sided 56-7 final in favor of the Dragons against the New Castle Trojans, the players received the message.
The Class 5A No. 2 Dragons improved to 8-0 and ran their Hoosier Heritage Conference record to 6-0 this season to clinch at least a share of the title.
The win seized the program’s fourth straight HHC crown and marked the Dragons 34th straight regular-season victory and 26th consecutive conference win.
But it wasn’t up to anyone’s expectations.
“We have a lot of room for improvement from this game,” New Palestine junior linebacker Josh Glover said. “We just have to stay focused, clean everything up.”
At face value, the Dragons were nearly perfect. The offense scored on its first seven possessions, running out to a 56-0 lead by the third quarter.
Senior running back DuRon Ford juked and slipped multiple tackles for 187 yards on 18 carries and three touchdowns. His scores measured 9, 3 and 26 yards. He broke off a huge 59-yard run in the second half.
Quarterback Gunnar Large opened the night 8-for-8 passing and finished 9-for-11 with 227 yards and three touchdowns. He connected with five different receivers and hit Brady Walden, Colby Jenkins and Adam Kincaid for scores spanning 56, 37 and 20 yards, respectively.
Large rushed for another touchdown and had 47 yards on five carries.
The Red Rage forced three turnovers — two fumbles — with Glover setting the tone on the game’s first series. Glover broke for a Niah Williamson pass attempt on second-and-10 and picked off the quarterback, returning the errant throw 40-yards for a 6-0 Dragons’ lead.
“It felt good. It was my first pick-six,” Glover said. “I just read his eyes and reacted. It was good how we started off. Before the game, we talked about how defense was going to set the tone. But we still have things to work on.”
New Castle (3-5, 2-4 HHC) didn’t score until the third quarter when backup quarterback Joe Thompson used a 36-yard run from Luke Bumbalough to punch in a 1-yard rushing touchdown.
Plays like Bumbalough’s sideline sprint and the 10 first downs scored against the New Palestine first-team defense were more than enough to spark Ralph’s honest critique.
New Castle was a flawless 4-for-4 on third-down conversions in the second half.
After scoring 42 points in the first half, the Dragons posted 14 in the second half and lost a key fumble on the Trojans 6 late in the third quarter, snapping their run at perfection on offense.
“More than enough room for improvement,” Ralph emphasized. “Being a conference champion is important to us, so to put ourselves in at least a share with a tie is great, but one of our program things around here is we don’t tie in anything. Ties aren’t good enough for us.”
Next week, in their final regular-season home game before hosting rival 5A No. 4 Columbus East in the first round of sectional play, the Dragons will get their opportunity.
New Palestine hosts Delta, who the Dragons leap-frogged for all-time HHC titles.
Both were tied for seven overall before New Palestine ensured an eighth at New Castle.
“We’re going to come back and have more than enough focus and intensity next week to be ready to be a conference champion,” Ralph said.