MARION CENTER — The Purchase Line Red Dragons are still learning what it takes to win football games, and they gained an important lesson in closing out victories Friday night.
After nearly fumbling away a 21-point lead on a sloppy, wet night, the Red Dragons gained their composure in time to escape with a 28-16 victory over
Marion Center in a Heritage Conference football game at John R. Mallino Stadium.
Grant Syster rushed for a season-high
279 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-clinching 84-yarder with 3:06 to play, as Purchase Line matched its win total from each of the past two seasons.
“Thank the good Lord above because I did a lot of praying there on the sideline that we’d get a break,” Purchase Line coach Brandon Overdorff said. “And we just kept fumbling it back, and they kept fumbling it back, we finally got a stop and then we answered with a long touchdown run. We’ve got to learn to finish football games, but that’s part of the process of (building) a winning program, is getting that killer instinct. It’s a win. A win is a win is a win, and we needed it.”
Now the Red Dragons want to press on and keep going.
“We’re learning how to win,” Syster said. “We just need to get better at it.”
“It feels amazing. I know we can keep this up the whole way through the rest of the season,” said senior Gavin Ewing, who delivered a momentum-shifting defensive play late in the first half.
Ewing intercepted Marion Center quarterback Blake Orr and raced for a 45-yard touchdown return with 3:16 to play in the first half, and Purchase Line took a 14-0 halftime lead.
“As soon as I caught it, and (the receiver) fell off of me, I looked up and my whole line was right up in front of me,” Ewing said.
On their first possession of the second half, the Red Dragons needed just three plays to cover 63 yards, and Todd Greene’s 30-yard touchdown run on an end-around gave Purchase Line a 21-0 lead just 3:03 into the second half.
From that point, Purchase Line couldn’t get out of its own way of closing out the game. The Red Dragons had trouble holding onto the ball throughout the second half, allowing Marion Center to creep back into the game.
It’s all part of the learning process for a team that hasn’t experienced a lot of winning.
“When we’re in a position that we’re in at 1-4, we’re just happy to get a win,” Overdorff said. “That’s what you play for. And we’ve got two now. We wish we had more, but we’ll go out and just keep playing and try to get them. It doesn’t matter who it is. A win is a win is a win, and for us at Purchase Line, we’re going to celebrate victories.”
Although the statistics indicate Purchase Line had only one turnover, there were plenty of miscues.
The Red Dragons fumbled the ball four times in the second half and five times total, though they only lost one fumble. They also had a failed punt attempt in the second half that directly led to a Marion Center touchdown.
The game featured 10 combined fumbles, including eight in the second half, when both teams had serious issues maintaining their grip on the ball.
“They took it to us early, early and often, there’s no doubt about it,” Marion Center coach Dave Malicky said. “The interception for the touchdown was huge before the half there. We weren’t exactly stopping them in the meantime. They were chewing up yardage. We came out and made some plays in the second half, got a little momentum, got a touchdown, cut it to 21-16, got the turnover and shot ourselves in the foot again with a penalty there. We’re finding ways to not get it done instead of finding ways to get it done.”
The Stingers had a golden chance to steal a win, but they couldn’t deliver.
Following the Red Dragons’ lone turnover — a fumble by Syster with 5:49 to play — Marion Center took over at the Red Dragons’ 45-yard line just 11 seconds after getting within 21-16 on Craig Irvin’s 13-yard touchdown pass to Noah Hoover. But a costly holding penalty on first down set the Stingers back and they had to punt.
Two plays later, Syster capped his huge night by going around left end for an 84-yard touchdown to put the game away.
“When I realized I was passing the linebackers, I realized I could break this,” Syster said. “I wasn’t trying to score. I knew I needed to get my team back because I fumbled so much.”
“They were kicking our tails up front, that’s the bottom line,” Malicky said. “They were playing on our side of the line of scrimmage. Syster was running hard, don’t get me wrong. You’ve got to give credit to Purchase Line, but at the same time, we didn’t get the job done at all tonight, defensively, offensively, special teams. We made a run at them late, but PL deserved to win, there’s no doubt about it.”
Syster received eight carries on the Red Dragons’ 10-play drive to start the game, setting the tone for the night. The area’s leading rusher entering Friday’s games, Syster finished with 29 carries and topped the 200-yard mark for the second time this season. He also ran for 277 yards against Blairsville in Week 2.
Syster scored on an 11-yard run to cap the opening drive.
Marion Center’s defense held the Red Dragons largely in check for the rest of the first half, even coming up with a stop inside its own 20-yard line late in the first quarter.
Late in the third quarter, after a three-and-out and still holding a 21-0 lead, the Red Dragons couldn’t get off a punt after a low snap skipped by punter Royce Bish, and Marion Center took over inside the Purchase Line 20-yard line.
Two plays later, Hoover scored on a 14-yard run and the Stingers were successful on the two-point conversion to get within 21-8 with 3:07 to play in the third quarter.
Later, Irvin hit Hoover for a 13-yard touchdown pass, and the two connected again on the two-point conversion to bring the Stingers within 21-16 with 6:00 left in the game.
Irvin replaced Orr in the second half after Orr threw his second interception, and the two split time at quarterback for the remainder of the game. Hoover led the Stingers’ offense with 63 rushing yards.
“We got off to a good start,” Overdorff said. “We really did good work on the line of scrimmage with our offensive line. Grant ran the ball really well. To be honest with you, we missed some holes. We’ve got lots of room to improve, but we got up 21-0 and I just had a feeling that Marion Center, those kids, they fight and they never quit. And that’s what they did, and we let them back in the game.”