TOPEKA — Buhler football coach Steve Warner struggled to answer whether the Crusaders' 35-21 loss in the Class 4A semifinals would have had a different result Friday if injured star tailback Jordan Oden had played.
"It's really tough to say that," Warner said. "I thought (backup Tanner Fisher) played really well, he ran hard. With the leadership that Jordan brings, you can't look at it that way."
Even if Oden hadn't suffered a broken collarbone in last week's win over Rose Hill, he might not have made the impact Hayden receiver Sean Morrow made.
When Buhler began stifling Hayden's running game in the second half, the Wildcats began calling Morrow's number. Three of his four touchdown receptions came after halftime as Hayden pulled away after being tied 14-14 at half. The Wildcats meet Bishop Miege in the 4A title game next Saturday in Salina.
"Those big old boys up front (on Buhler's defensive line), we were having trouble moving them," Hayden coach Bill Arnold said. "You go to the next phase (of the offense)."
Buhler took an easy gamble by calling time-outs late in the first half in an effort to get the ball back. When the Crusaders took over from their 39-yard line with 26 seconds to go, it didn't appear to be enough time to score a game-tying touchdown.
But Fisher, who was shut down before and after his only big gain, rushed for 54 yards to the Hayden 7-yard line, and two plays later Jake Reffner threw the first of three touchdown passes.
"I thought we had the momentum going into halftime, without a doubt," Warner said.
Any momentum the Crusaders had was taken back by Hayden and particularly Morrow. He caught a 31-yard pass from Grant Arnold to cap a nine-play drive leading off the second half. After a Fisher fumble, Morrow scored on Hayden's next play, a 57-yard halfback pass from Shanan Engroff.
"We had the defense that we wanted," Warner said. "It was their best receiver against our best defensive back."
Morrow said a two-touchdown lead felt like even more in a game that was tight for the first 30 minutes.
"We just caught them sleeping a few times," said Morrow, who started the season as Hayden's quarterback. "We were able to take advantage and make some plays."
Buhler was the first beneficiary of a turnover, recovering a fumble on its 1-yard line on Hayden's first drive.
Giveaways proved to be the Crusaders' downfall, though. Two series after Fisher's fumble, Reffner came up short on a fade pass that turned into an easy interception for Morrow.
Hayden permanently damaged Buhler's chances by scoring on a 12-play drive that started late in the third quarter and ended nearly seven minutes into the fourth. Morrow's fourth touchdown catch made it 35-14.
Oden rushed for 2,559 yards before his injury and Buhler couldn't come up with an effective replacement. Fisher ran for 90 yards but 20 after halftime. Dual threat Reffner managed two rushing yards and was sacked three times.
"The biggest turnaround was the two turnovers we had in the second half," Warner said. "That killed our offense. That was a huge key for the third quarter. We ran eight plays in the third quarter and two of them were turnovers."
Buhler (11-2) 7 7 0 7 — 21 Topeka Hayden (9-4) 6 8 14 7 — 35
TH—Steuber 5 run (kick failed)
B—Lohrentz 45 pass from Reffner (Heide kick)
TH—Morrow 8 pass from Arnold (Arnold run)
B—Wimer 8 pass from Reffner (Heide kick)
TH—Morrow 31 pass from Arnold (Engroff kick)
TH—Morrow 57 pass from Engroff (Engroff kick)
TH—Morrow 12 pass from Arnold (Engroff kick)
B—Story 18 pass from Reffner (Heide kick)
Rushing—Buhler, Fisher 11-90, Wimer 1-17, Davidson 3-7, Reffner 12-2. Hayden, Schmidtberger 6-69, Nicol 12-55, Steuber 14-38, Engroff 8-31, Bohannon 2-27, Arnold 3(-6).
Passing—Buhler, Reffner 14-22-203-1. Hayden, Arnold 9-14-114-0, Engroff 1-1-57-0.
Receiving—Buhler, Wimer 4-34, Story 3-39, Fisher 3-38, Lohrentz 2-71, Montandon 1-15, Partridge 1-6. Hayden, Morrow 6-119, Bohannon 3-37, Nicol 1-15.