WARREN — In a game featuring the state’s highest-scoring team and two of Indiana’s top running backs, it was instead a defense that earned accolades Friday at South Putnam.
Specifically, the Eastern Hancock defensive unit, often overshadowed by the Royals’ 60-points-per-game offense, came up with five turnovers in a 29-14 regional championship win.
It’s the Class A No. 4 Royals’ first regional title since the state championship year of 1985, and they’ll host equally undefeated No. 1 Linton-Stockton (13-0) next Friday with a chance to return to downtown Indianapolis.
The Royals’ march toward the semistate had been due largely to its high-powered offense, which scored at least 50 points in 10 games and 70 points three times. The EH defense notched three shutouts this season, but never against the quality of opponent it faced Friday in No. 5 South Putnam (11-2), which was led all year by running back Lucas Lorian.
The Eagles’ junior ran for 170 yards Friday to up his final season total over 2,800 yards, but he was unable to take over the game as Eastern Hancock snared three interceptions and forced two fumbles, including one by Lorian.
“It’s always been about the offense and what they can do,” said EH linebacker Hunter Knopp, whose 49-yard interception return for a touchdown gave the Royals the lead for good at 15-14 with four minutes, 11 seconds left in the second quarter. “It really got to us this week when they said we couldn’t contain 25 (Lorian). That was the main objective, and we got it done.”
The Eagles’ defense was in charge to start the contest. Of the Royals’ first four drives, two ended in South Putnam territory when the visitors couldn’t convert on fourth down and two more drives ended with interceptions thrown by EH quarterback Logan Splater.
With the Royals shutout in the first quarter for the first time since Sept. 6 at Indian Creek, South Putnam took a 14-0 lead into the second quarter on a four-yard touchdown run by senior fullback Joe Waters and an unusual, double-pitch 41-yard run by Lorian.
With 3:18 remaining in the opening quarter and holding a 7-0 lead, Waters received a handoff and was nearly tackled for a loss. As he was going down, though, he pitched to QB Grady McHugh, who was also nearly taken down before he hurriedly tossed the ball to Lorian, and the Eagles’ runner was off down the right sideline to the end zone.
It was the second straight week the Royals fell behind. Northeastern had a 36-21 advantage on the Royals in the sectional championship before EH rallied for a 57-36 win.
“I’d much rather be up 14-0 then down 14-0,” EH coach Pat Echeverria said. “When you’re playing a good football team, especially on the road, sometimes it’s tough to get going. We gave them the short field one time (on the Waters’ TD following an interception) and then they had that crazy play where they pitched it a couple times.
“Our offense put our defense in a bad situation. But all night long our defense … they won us the game. That’s an unbelievable team over there offensively. We knew they were going to be a challenge and our defense stepped up to every challenge.”
South Putnam got the ball back after picking off Splater on the ensuing EH possession and had the ball on 4th-and-1 at the Royals’ 22-yard line, aiming for a three-touchdown lead.
Instead, the EH defense stuffed Waters for no gain, and the Royals took over and drove the length of the field, punctuated by a six-yard TD run by Splater to make it a 14-8 game.
Two minutes later, after EH was forced to punt, Knopp picked off McHugh for the go-ahead score.
In addition to the interception, the Eagles lost two fumbles in the second quarter, with Austin Bednarksi and Owen Hunt on the recoveries for the Royals. Spencer Gilbert, the state’s leading scorer and a 2,600-yard rusher, made two interceptions from his linebacker spot.
On the ground, Gilbert finished with 185 yards and one touchdown on 34 carries and out-gained Lorian 101-40 in the second half. Lorian, who had 24 carries, missed one third-quarter series with a hamstring injury.
“We talked to the kids before the game and said we know both teams have unbelievable running backs, what other player was going to step up?” Echeverria commented. “And Hunter stepped up, Cooper (Henderson) made some nice runs. And again, our defense, is what led us tonight.
“I’m so proud of these kids. I think we wore (South Putnam) down again in the second half, started moving them a little bit and that’s what we’ve been able to do all year long.”
Henderson had 65 yards on 12 carries, including nine runs for 56 yards in the second half. His two-yard touchdown run with 1:15 to go in the third quarter gave EH a 22-14 lead.
Gilbert picked off new South Putnam quarterback Sawyer Arnold on the Eagles’ next drive, then capped EH’s possession with a one-yard TD run for a final 29-14 tally at 11:33 of the fourth quarter.
The Royals will return for their final home game of the season Friday against top-ranked Linton-Stockton, which defeated Fountain Central 47-28 Friday. EH and L-S have no common opponents. The other Class A semistate is Tri-Central (12-1) vs. Winimac (13-0). Tri-Central hasn’t lost since a Week 1, 47-35 defeat against visiting Eastern Hancock.
Eastern Hancock 29, South Putnam 14
EH (13-0) 0 15 7 7 — 29
SP (11-2) 14 0 0 0 — 14
SP — Waters, 4-yard run (Young kick), 5:52.
SP — Lorian, 41-yard run (Young kick), 3:18.
EH — Splater, 6-yard run (Henderson 2-yard run), 6:56.
EH — Knopp, 49-yard interception return (Henderson kick), 4:11.
EH — Henderson, 2-yard run (Henderson kick), 1:15.
EH — Gilbert, 1-yard run (Henderson kick), 11:33.
First downs 17 10
Rushes-yards 62-297 42-220
Passing yards 36 47
Comp-Att-Int 3-13-3 3-11-3
Fumbles-Lost 2-1 2-2
Penalties-Yards 7-44 2-20
Rushing: Gilbert 34-185, Splater 16-47, Henderson 12-65 (EH); Lorian 24-170, Waters 4-12, Riner 3-6, McHugh 1-6, Patrick 6-11, Neumann 1-(-3), Arnold 3-18 (SP).
Passing: Splater 3-14-36 (EH); McHugh 2-6-38, Arnold 1-5-9 (SP).
Receiving: Gilbert 1-23, Henderson 1-8, Noel 1-5 (EH); Lorian 0-0, Riner 2-38, Rutter 1-9 (SP).