INDIANAPOLIS – East Noble had a slim lead and reasons to be optimistic through the first half of the Class 4A state title game at Lucas Oil Stadium on Saturday.
But that optimism evaporated quickly in the third quarter as Evansville Memorial turned up the pressure, securing a 21-3 victory and claiming its second state title in three years.
“Unfortunately, we had a few turnovers and we had a couple injuries, and some things that were tough for us to overcome,” East Noble coach Luke Amstutz said. “This is a team that I'm extremely proud of, and always will be, but today wasn't our day.”
The Knights (14-1) had barely allowed the Tigers (13-1) past midfield during the first half – the only time Evansville Memorial passed the 50-yard line, Brooks Miller immediately picked off Tigers quarterback Colton Pence.
But the Tigers started the second half with the ball and they kept it, taking more than eight minutes to chip away at the East Noble defense. The Tigers' first attempt at a flea-flicker failed as Hayden Jones and Miller broke up the pass around the 5-yard line, but the tricky play paid off with 3:55 remaining in the quarter as Alan Michael Stepto lined up behind center and flipped the ball to Pence, who then threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Will Brackett to put Memorial ahead 7-3.
On the next drive, Logan Lively intercepted East Noble quarterback Bailey Parker for the second time, this time returning the ball almost to the end zone. After one more stop by the Knights defense, Brock Combs scored on a 1-yard carry to put Evansville Memorial up 14-3. Only 92 seconds of game time had elapsed between the two scores.
East Noble reached the red zone several times, but struggled once they got there – a striking development for a team that had averaged 36 points per game.
“That's the best pass defense I've ever coached against in a high school game,” Amstutz said. “They read their keys and got to their drops and got on the balls. Did things we didn't think they could do.”
As the clock wound down in the first half, Parker ran the ball to the 8-yard line before being pushed out of bounds. But that was followed by an offsides penalty, a tackle for loss and then an incomplete pass. A pass interference call on fourth down gave the Knights a lifeline, and they took advantage with a 27-yard field goal by Joe Painter.
The Knights were further hampered by the loss of running back Justin Marcellus, who came into the game averaging 79.1 rushing yards. He was hurt in the second quarter and watched the second half with his shoulder encased in ice packs.
“I was real proud of our sophomore, Kainon Carico, for stepping in and playing really well,” Amstutz said. “(Losing Marcellus) hurt us a lot in pass protection. Justin has so much experience this year, knows those little nuances of how to protect. And when he went out, that limited some of the things that we could do, and we never got the ball rolling.”
After the Tigers scored their second touchdown, the Knights got back to the Evansville red zone, but on third and goal Parker was picked off by Stepto.
East Noble defensive lineman Leyth Al-Mohammedawi gave the Knights one last highlight by blocking an Evansville Memorial punt, giving the Knights the ball back at the 31-yard line, but East Noble failed to take advantage of their break.
A 65-yard run by Combs with 2:54 to go in the fourth quarter sealed the win for the Tigers. Stepto capped off a strong performance with his second interception of the game in the final moments.
“Their defense played amazing,” Jones, a wide receiver and defensive back, said. “I don't think our offense was ready for that. We're usually a pretty high-powered offense, so their defense shocked us.”
The Tigers defense harassed Parker all day, sacking him twice and recording four hurries. The East Noble passer, who was named the Mental Attitude Award Winner, completed seven of 23 pass attempts for 99 yards with four interceptions. Parker and Carico each ran for 41 yards, while Evansville Memorial's Brock Combs ran for 148, averaging just under 10 yards per carry.
“I feel like our defense played well enough to keep us in it; we block a punt and we still have an opportunity and aren't able to score,” Amstutz said. “We had an interception that cost us a field goal with a chance to make it 14-6. But once the snowball got rolling, unfortunately we missed a few tackles.”
13 tackles, sack
3 tackles, INT, touchdown-saving PBU
5 tackles, TFL, 65-yard punt (ties Class 4A state championship game record)
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