With questions surrounding the quarterback position for Palisade going into Friday night's WarDog game against rival Central, the Bulldogs made a statement on the other side of the football.
In a battle of backup quarterbacks, Gabe Harrison for Palisade and Joe Carol for Central, both defenses created headaches for the opposition all night.
The Bulldogs' defense was especially dominant, helping them pull away for a 34-7 victory at Stocker Stadium.
Palisade has defeated Central in 10 consecutive meetings.
"Defensively, we did some outstanding things," said Palisade coach Joe Ramunno. "That's what swayed the game. We set a good tempo early, but they have a good defense that comes at you, so we had to do some things with some young guys and they stepped up. Overall, we're pleased with it.
"Any time you get a win in this rivalry, it's a good thing."
The Bulldogs (2-1) used a methodical opening drive to take the lead. On 4th and goal from the 1-yard line, Caden Sparks powered his way into the end zone for a 7-0 lead with 5:57 left in the quarter.
The Warriors (0-4) responded with their best offensive drive of the night, jump-started by Patrick Courtney, who rumbled 30 yards up the gut on the second play of the series. Later in the drive, Carol connected with Jackson Eads for the second time on the drive for 14 yards to move into the red zone.
However, on 4th and goal at the 3, Carol threw the ball too low for a diving Eads, who contested with officials that he got his arms under the ball before it hit the ground.
The Warriors' offense, which ended the game with 191 total yards, wouldn't get that close to the end zone the rest of the night.
At least, not offensively.
With 7:57 remaining in the second quarter and the Bulldogs in the midst of another lengthy drive, Sparks was met in the backfield and coughed up the football. Luke Pleasant picked it up and ran 55 yards to the end zone to tie the game.
"That game was the best effort we've had defensively," said Central coach Brandon Milholland. "They were low and mean and tough and disciplined. We've just got to put it together on both sides of the ball."
Central's side of Stocker was thrilled with the tying score, but the momentum didn't last long.
On the first play of the next drive, Franklin Barks broke free for an 80-yard score. Ben Sargent missed the extra point, but Palisade had reclaimed the lead, 13-7.
Barks finished with a team-high 18 carries and 172 yards, with 141 of his yards coming on 10 first-half runs.
"I think it was a big motivator, a big pump-up play," Barks said. "It brought a lot of tempo for us and gave us that momentum. It made the whole team super-hyped and we just kept punching them and punching them. It was a good game for the whole team."
Despite the offense only finding big plays sporadically, Central thought it would be going to halftime down 13-7. Right before halftime, though, disaster struck.
With time winding down in the half, Carol threw the pass to Eads on a slant to his right. The ball bounced out of Eads' hands and into the arms of Palisade's Jayse Bush, who rumbled 30 yards down the sideline and dove over the pylon for a touchdown with 4 seconds left.
Central's defense provided some much-needed life in the third quarter. Harrison attempted his only pass of the night to Barks, who was open down the right sideline. However, Eads undercut the route for an interception and set up the Warriors near midfield.
Palisade's defense rose to the occasion yet again. With the ball at the Bulldogs' 30, Antonio Quair fumbled. The ball was recovered by defensive lineman Alex Derr.
Try as it might, Central's defense couldn't keep Palisade's offense down the entire second half, especially with the Warriors' offense turning the ball over in the fourth quarter. Carol threw two picks to Sparks and a third to Kevin Sjogren. Sjogren's interception set up a 3-yard touchdown run by Harrison, his third touchdown of the season, and Sparks' first pick ended with him in the end zone for his second rushing score of the night.
"It was a lot of fun out here for these guys," said Sparks, a senior who has played his final game against Central. "I know most of the Central kids. I know they're hard players. They go hard every play. I'm glad I was able to rally with my boys and get those TDs and those picks."
All 326 of Palisade's yards came on the ground, with Sparks gaining 52, Julio Rodriguez adding 59 and Harrison running for 43.
In his first start at the varsity level, Harrison wasn't asked to do too much, but he still earned praise from his coach.
"Gabe did a great job," Ramunno said. "He led us down the field. He kept the ball in play and kept things going. The one interception, he knows we had it open, but we took too long to throw it. But I was very pleased with Gabe. He did a great job stepping in and going."