NEW PALESTINE — The hype was off the charts. The Class 5A No. 2 New Palestine Dragons heard it all week, how Hoosier Heritage Conference rival New Castle and its high-octane passing offense was going to put on a show.
On Friday night the unbeaten Dragons (8-0, 6-0 HHC) responded on both sides of the football.
Quarterback Zach Neligh threw for four touchdowns, and the Dragons’ leading rusher Luke Canfield barreled for four scores as New Palestine celebrated senior night with a sound 56-24 victory to clinch their fifth straight conference championship.
“That was all the talk, about basketball on grass and stuff like that. Maybe we played football on the hardwood tonight? I don’t know,” Ralph joked. “But it was a huge challenge for us.”
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New Castle quarterback Niah Williamson entered the night with 2,902 yards passing and 36 touchdowns to rank second in the nation. The Dragons’ Red Rage defense wasn’t impressed.
Facing consistent hurries and flushed out of the pocket routinely, Williamson’s presence was minimized despite completing 23 of 55 attempts for two touchdowns. The Dragons sacked Williamson four times and grabbed three interceptions to keep the visiting Trojans scoreless until the second quarter.
The only breakthroughs the Trojans had were both touchdown passes by Williamson to Luke Bumbalough for 12 yards and another to open the third quarter to Tytus Ragle for 2 yards.
The second drive was extended due to a pair of New Palestine penalties. The Dragons were charged with six penalties all game that resulted in first downs for the Trojans.
A 39-yard field by Carter Brown in the fourth quarter followed by a 95-yard kickoff return by Bumbalough late marked the Trojans’ only other scoring conversions. New Castle (4-4, 3-3 HHC) was averaging 45.7 points a game prior to Friday.
“The final score doesn’t really indicate how well we played. A silly kickoff returned for a touchdown and a drive full of penalties for them that drove them all the way inside the 5-yard line,” Ralph said. “It really shouldn’t have been that. Our defense played a lot better than that number shows up there.”
The Dragons were nearly unstoppable, exceeding their 48.0 points per game average. The offense scored on their first seven possessions en route to a 35-0 lead and later a 49-14 advantage.
The win was New Palestine’s 44th consecutive regular-season win, a streak that has held true since 2013. Canfield and Neligh, among others, made sure their run stayed intact.
“(Williamson is) a phenomenal player, and he did a great job of alluding pressure, but I wasn’t too worried about trying to show up and be him. I was trying to show up and be Zach Neligh,” Neligh said after the game. “I was worried about the game plan. If it came down to it and I only had 20 passing yards, and he 800, it wouldn’t impact me as long as we won.”
Neligh completed 11 of 15 pass attempts for 301 yards. His touchdown passes measured 77, 18, 81 and 32 yards.
The longest went to Kade Large, who hauled in a pair of touchdowns, while Jaxon Manes grabbed one touchdown, covering 77 yards. JT Hoffman pulled in the other score.
“They are a great passing team, but we did the good job, too,” Neligh said.
Canfield had 192 yards rushing and sprinted to scores covering 35, 1, 46 and 1 yards.
“It’s nice to have that because you never know what you need to do,” Neligh said. “It keeps the defense guessing. It’s really nice to have a balanced team like that with Luke and all the weapons we have on the edge and how great our offensive line is.”
The Dragons travel to Delta next week to wrap up the regular season before sectional play begins.
“It’s interesting how all the hype was one them and their offense, and I think our guys took that as a little bit of a slap in the face. As if they were going to shred right through our defense tonight,” Ralph said. “And that’s not to take anything away from them, their offense or coach (Kyle) York, who does a fantastic job, but we play good defense here. And we take a lot of pride in our defense.”