Thanksgiving football: Owen Dawson, South Hadley step up in second half to get past Holyoke 20-6

South Hadley quarterback Burke Belsky (16), left, hands off to Owen Dawson (4) for a 65-yard touchdown run earlier this season in South Hadley.

South Hadley quarterback Burke Belsky (16), left, hands off to Owen Dawson (4) for a 65-yard touchdown run earlier this season in South Hadley. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

By HANNAH BEVIS

Staff Writer

Published: 11-23-2023 3:05 PM

HOLYOKE – During last year’s Thanksgiving Day game between South Hadley and Holyoke, the two teams combined for 96 total points, a showdown between a pair of powerhouse offenses. 

This year, it was the defenses’ time to shine – the Purple Knights and Tigers went into halftime deadlocked at 0-0, thanks in large part to two massive stops by Holyoke’s defense with South Hadley two yards away from the end zone. 

The Purple Knights kept South Hadley star Owen Dawson in check, so to switch things up and give him a little more breathing room, the Tigers coaching staff moved Dawson to quarterback in the second half. The change worked – Dawson ran for two touchdowns and propelled the Tigers to a 20-6 win, giving the program their fifth Thanksgiving day win in the six years the two teams have gone head to head. 

“Feels great, we worked all season,” Dawson said. “It's just a big win and it's important to all of us, we love it.” 

Mistakes plagued both teams in the opening half, stymieing the offenses as they struggled to string together enough plays to move the ball down the field. Holyoke over-snapped two punt attempts that resulted in turnovers closer to the end zone for South Hadley, and the Tigers had two opportunities where the ball was within two yards of the end zone that they couldn’t convert on. 

The Tigers’ inability to score in the first half was in large part thanks to Holyoke’s defensive line, which came to play from the first snap and was rock solid for the first 24 minutes. Alex Robles sacked South Hadley’s Noah Marion two yards away from the end zone as the clock ticked down in the first half to prevent a TD, and the defense stepped up again with less than a minute to go in the second half.

The Tigers had a first-and-goal attempt, needing to get just two yards into the end zone. The first two efforts were stonewalled by the defense, prompting a South Hadley timeout. But when the Tigers lined up again, they were whistled for a false start, moving them back five yards, and on the next snap Holyoke’s Ethan Zayas was in the right place at the right time, intercepting the ball with 15 seconds left in the half to keep the Tigers off the scoreboard yet again. 

“The defense was phenomenal today. Best defensive half that we've had all year, since I've been here. We were just locked in,” Holyoke head coach David Guzman said. “Unfortunately, our offense wasn't locked in like that. South Hadley’s defense did an outstanding job.” 

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Dawson took over at QB at the beginning of the second half, though South Hadley coach Brian Couture made it clear the swap wasn’t about starter Burke Belsky playing poorly, but more of a way to open up Dawson’s options. 

“We call that our jumbo package. What it allows us to do – Owen in the wing position really can only run in one direction. Putting him there, he can run multiple directions,” Couture said. “And Holyoke was keying on him, they shut him down nicely in the first half.”

The Tigers won the coin toss at the beginning of the day and deferred the ball to the second half. The Tigers used that to their advantage in the third quarter, scoring on their first possession. The offense moved the ball within three yards of the end zone, and Dawson took it in himself to make it 6-0. Marty Loughrey converted on the two-point attempt to give the Tigers an 8-0 lead. 

After more penalties forced a turnover on downs on Holyoke, South Hadley took the ball and once again took it within three yards before the clock ran out on the third frame. On the first snap of the fourth quarter, Dawson ate up the 3-yard run with ease, making it 14-0 after Holyoke stymied the two-point conversion attempt. 

South Hadley’s defense shined on a late punt block from Jasiel Ramos, who picked up the ball and carried it four yards shy of the end zone, a major play that set South Hadley up nicely for its third TD of the day. Dawson handed the ball off to Marion, who ran 4 yards for a touchdown, though once again the Purple Knights got the stop on the two-point effort. 

Holyoke quarterback Nathan Pok made sure the Purple Knight faithful didn’t go home empty handed, rushing 23 yards with half the South Hadley defense hanging onto him to make it 20-6 with 4:27 left. Their two-point conversion fell short, and South Hadley took a knee to end the contest. 

Hannah Bevis can be reached at hbevis@gazettenet.com. Follow her on Twitter @Hannah_Bevis1.