INDIANAPOLIS — Indianapolis Roncalli quarterback Derek O'Connor was never an afterthought in the NorthWood defensive game plan for the Class 4A state title game.
But it's unlikely that anyone on the Panther sideline expected O'Connor to be quite as good as he was on Friday.
The multi-talented 6-3, 175-pound senior, carried the ball 31 times for 154 yards and three touchdowns, while also completing 11 of his 18 passes for 159 yards and another score, as Roncalli beat NorthWood, 34-22 in an exciting IHSAA championship contest.
"He's been a horse for us all season, but today we just rode him to the title,'' Roncalli coach Bruce Scifres said. "I saw some things early in the game with NorthWood's unbalanced defensive line that we thought Derek could take advantage of, so we just kept running him right at them.''
It didn't help that NorthWood really hadn't seen a quarterback this season with O'Connor's ability to both run and pass.
Wawasee quarterback Tyler Smith came close in matching O'Connor's quickness and running ability, though Smith didn't show the ability to throw like the Roncalli lefty.
"The thing with O'Connor is, he doesn't scramble to run, he scrambles to find time to throw the ball,'' said NorthWood linebacker Drew Minnich. "We knew he was a great player coming in, but he did a great job of extending plays and finding the opening or the open guy.''
O'Connor's longest play of the game came after the Panthers had cut the Roncalli lead to 21-14 on a 36-yard touchdown run by junior Brayton Yoder.
The Rebels had a second-and-seven from their own 30, when O'Connor hit wide receiver Jacob Luedeman on a slant pass over the middle. Luedeman broke one tackle about 10 yards down field, then outran Northwood defensive back DeAndre Smart to the end zone for a 70-yard touchdown.
"I couldn't have asked for a better pass,'' Luedeman said. "Derek was on all day and he just hit me in stride. From there, I just ran as fast as I could to try and beat the NorthWood guy to the end zone and I just barely made it.''
Coming into the state finals, O'Connor ran the ball 143 times for 520 yards, a 3.6 average. He actually ran for 179 yards on Friday, but two sacks and a couple kneel downs at the end of the game, pushed his total back to 154.
O'Connor scored the first two touchdowns of the game on short runs and then added what would be the back-breaker for NorthWood with a 22-yard scoring run with 8:36 to play in the fourth quarter.
The Panthers opened the game with six players going both ways, while Roncalli was totally two-platoon, very rare for a 4A team.
Then when starting defensive linemen Will Ingle went down with a knee injury in the first half, the Panthers often had seven players playing both offense and defense.
"We got dinged up early and that certainly didn't help,'' Andrews said. "I think our kids got a little tired in the fourth quarter, but they really fought never gave up.''
"Roncalli's offensive line was really good and physical,'' Minnich said. "Obviously that really helped their quarterback, but I think it was even bigger for him that he was able to make some plays against us early and you could just see him gain confidence as the game went on.''