NEW PALESTINE — A year ago, the roles were reversed. Not this time. The Columbus East Olympian defense made sure of it.
Turning the ball over with an interception on the first play from scrimmage and four times total, the Class 5A No. 2 New Palestine Dragons never found their footing Friday night, losing 35-7 to the No. 4 Olympians to open Sectional 14.
The loss was the program’s first at Kelso Stadium since 2012, ending their run at 21 straight. The last time the Olympians (9-1) defeated the Dragons (9-1) was in the 2013 semistate title game.
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The first of the four consecutive state tournament matchups with Columbus East went to the Olympians 49-14 before New Palestine won back-to-back in the series by a combined 12-point margin.
Unlike the past two meetings in semistate (2014) and in the sectional final (2015), however, this one was decisive and uncharacteristic for the Dragons.
New Palestine entered the game as the state’s highest scoring offense but couldn’t get going, turning the ball over twice with interceptions and two lost fumbles.
“They all hurt,” New Palestine head coach Kyle Ralph remarked on the first to the last turnover. “You can’t turn the ball over period. We did it four times tonight, which is not executing.”
On 10 offensive possessions, the Dragons scored once, in the second quarter. Trailing 14-0, New Palestine drove 80 yards in 5 minutes, 13 seconds on 15 plays to climb back within a possession.
Senior DuRon Ford capped the highlight series with a 2-yard run to cut the deficit 14-7 with 3:20 left in the half. Ford finished with 57 yards rushing.
It would be the last time the Dragons would find the end zone and success despite averaging 57.0 points per game.
“You go down 14-7 with a chance of possibly tying it and then it’s 20-7 and we are at least in striking distance, again, and we turn it over again. We just didn’t execute it,” Ralph said. “You can’t do that against average teams, let alone outstanding teams like this. That’s just a death sentence.”
The first staggering blow went to Ethan Summa, who reached up to snag an interception from New Palestine quarterback Gunnar Large on first-and-10 from the Dragons 27 to start the game.
The next came off a lost fumble on the Dragons’ third possession on Columbus East’s 44. A second lost fumble before halftime put the Olympians in prime position with its third short field in five offensive drives.
Columbus East converted each turnover, taking a 20-7 lead by the half led by their rushing attack.
Through their first two possessions, the Olympians racked up seven rushing first downs, and never let up behind their stout offensive line.
The only mishap for the Olympians was in the first quarter.
Up 7-0, Columbus East bulldozed to the Dragons’ 1-yard line after nine rushing plays. Jaedin Miller tried to breakthrough up the middle on second-and-goal, but he fumbled the ball out the back of the end zone for a touch back.
The Dragons tried to build momentum off the gift, but their turnover woes were just beginning.
“We came out and we thought we could come back and possibly win again,” New Palestine senior Brady Walden said. “They came out tough, though, and ran it down our throats. It was hard to come back against, especially against a team that good. I have a lot of respect for those guys and that team.”
The Olympians earned it. When they were on the verge of losing control, the ball found a way to bounce in their favor.
On fourth-and-5 from New Palestine’s 14, the Olympians faced a crucial play early in the second quarter. Quarterback Josh Major dropped back, fumbled the ball before scooping it back up while on the run. After a few steps to regain his balance, he found a wide open Bryce Duffett for a 14-yard touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
With seconds left in the first half, Major worked his magic again. With no timeouts, the quarterback marched the Olympians 40 yards after New Palestine’s second lost fumble, and a 20-7 lead.
Spiking the ball twice, Major scrambled on third-and-10 from the New Palestine 16 before finding a crease and a rushing score. Major end with a passing touchdown and two rushing. He completed 3 of 5 passes for 43 yards.
The Olympians put the game out of reach in the third quarter with a nearly seven-minute drive that running back Jamon Hogan ended with a 6-yard rushing touchdown.
The Dragons had two turnovers on downs, a punt, and another interception in the second half. New Palestine tried to push back, but their running game suffered behind four “walking wounded” offensive linemen, Ralph said.
Large completed 14 of 24 passes for 128 yards and two interceptions. He rushed for 56 yards.
Hogan led the Olympians with 130 yards on 27 carries and two touchdowns.
“You have to execute. We knew they were big and strong and physical,” Ralph said. “We told our guys if they could withstand the punishment we would be alright, it not, we were in trouble. They punished us.”