Electric running and electrolytes fueled New Albany's high-voltage victory in the high school football season opener Friday night.
Junior running back Tuwan Payton, unstoppable but for second-half calf cramps, ran for 232 yards and three touchdowns as the Bulldogs started with a 28-15 win at Providence. New Albany ended a three-game losing streak in the rivalry and matched last year's win total as the Bulldogs turned Murphy Stadium into Payton's Place.
Payton was the difference maker. He crackled in the first half with two touchdown runs of 70-plus yards, then sealed the outcome and eased the anxiety on the New Albany sideline with his final score with 1:48 left.
"We've not been able to beat them," New Albany coach Charlie Fields said as his team celebrated with the roaring New Albany student body. "We're going to enjoy this, and it could be the springboard to a great year."
Payton's breakaway speed was electric. Every time he spotted open space, he shocked the Pioneers.
His first burst, a 33-yarder punctuated by a spectacular spin move at the line of scrimmage, set up New Albany's first touchdown. Quarterback Michael Diehl followed that run by slicing 9 yards untouched up the middle for a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter.
But that move was forgotten when Payton took two straight carries to the end zone. On the first play following Providence's first-half score, Payton pranced outside, and easily won a footrace down the left sideline for a 70-yard score, extending New Albany's advantage to 14-6.
Providence's next drive ended with Payton's interception of Nathan Banet's high pass over the middle. Diehl had a 49-yard run wiped away by a holding penalty, but Payton duplicated his previous run with a 74-yard escape, slipping away from Owen Mattingly's diving tackle attempt to cover the last 15 yards.
Payton ended the half with 189 yards on eight carries.
"I was looking for the alley," Payton said. "All week in practice, we were working on blocking the free safety with the wide receiver. I told him if he got that block, I was going to make a big play."
The momentum turned when Payton limped off, suffering his first cramp while playing defense. Providence plowed 81 yards on 14 plays -- 12 of them runs by sophomore Matt Bell -- and cut the New Albany lead to 21-12 on the opening drive of the second half.
With Payton out, Providence sensed a comeback. Andrew Wimp's 20-yard field goal closed the gap to 21-15 with 5:31 left.
With his team teetering, Payton returned for the final drive. Diehl kept it alive with a huge third-down conversion pass to fullback Jesse DeMuth and two third-down runs, and then Payton finalized it with the 28-yard burst.
"This was all about pride," Payton said. "I knew I needed to be out there. My team needs me. We're a new group. We just kept our composure and made it happen."
Bell ran for 127 yards while Mattingly had 75 first-half yards and a first-quarter touchdown from 28 yards. But the Payton plays put Providence in a hole.
"This game is four quarters, it ain't two," Providence coach Larry Denison said. "I'm proud of the effort in the second half. The clock just ran out on us. We can't feel sorry for ourselves.
"We had some momentum going our way. We have to play with that intensity. We had to focus on stopping the quarterback, that's where is starts. But we couldn't lose sight of everyone else."
The cramping issues, which sent seven Bulldogs to the sideline, were nearly decisive.
"We gave them bananas every day this week," Fields said. "We're going to give them more. And we're going to have a personal protection unit around Tuwan better than (President Barack) Obama. He's a great kid. Without a doubt, he was big. But the linemen blocked for him, and he would be the first to say that."
Diehl completed 7 of 9 passes for 60 yards. And he carried the offense when Payton was not present.
"The old New Albany would have quit then," Fields said. "These guys didn't. When they needed to make a play, they made a play."