Dalton Brown spent most of the week leading up to Buhler’s district opener against Andale watching practice and healing ailments.
But there was never a doubt about the junior running back’s mission when the teams played Friday.
“We ran him until his legs couldn’t run anymore,” Buhler coach Steve Warner said.
Brown answered the bell in style, running for 194 yards and two touchdowns on 39 attempts as Buhler knocked off previously unbeaten Andale 28-21.
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After ending years of frustration against Andale with a 16-0 victory in last year’s season opener, Buhler made it two straight over the Indians with a complete performance. The Crusaders grabbed the inside track on the District 7 race in Class 4A-I when quarterback Ethan White scored the winning touchdown on a 1-yard sneak with 8:02 remaining.
“I think this was our best game of the year,” said Brown, who scored on first-half touchdown runs of 5 and 9 yards. “Andale is a great team. We came out focused and we just followed through the whole game.”
It required plenty of mettle on the Crusaders’ part, as Andale, No. 2 in 4A-I, rallied from a 14-point deficit to tie the score at 21 in the third quarter.
White’s run completed a 13-play, 45-yard drive that started after Andale failed to convert on a fourth-down pass attempt from backup quarterback Ethan Baalmann to Parker Bruce.
“We knew this was the game-winning drive right here,” White said.
Buhler (6-1), coming off a sluggish second half in a 35-21 victory last week over Augusta, was strong from the start. Andale (6-1), No. 2 in 4A-I, won the toss and chose to receive. But the Crusaders’ defense quickly set the tone, forcing two consecutive three-and-out possessions to provide the fuel for a 14-0 lead.
“If I had to do it over again, I’d probably take the wind,” Andale coach Gary O’Hair said. “By doing what we did, we had to come out and run the ball. We didn’t do it and we dug ourselves a hole.”
After a 12-yard punt by Andale into a strong wind, Buhler drove 35 yards for its opening touchdown. It came on the Crusaders’ lone completion of the first half, a 6-yard pass from White to Jack Goertzen.
Buhler covered 51 yards on four running plays for its second touchdown. Brown, who had 18 carries for 136 yards at the break, scored on a 5-yard run to make it 14-0.
“I don’t think I drank enough water because I kept cramping,” Brown said. “But the team needed me and the offensive line did their job, so it was pretty easy for the most part.”
Andale played most of the game without senior quarterback Taylor Richter, who injured his hip on the Indians’ opening drive. But Baalmann, a sophomore, made an immediate impact with a 40-yard pass to Dylan Horsch that set up Baalmann’s 3-yard touchdown run in the final minute of the first quarter.
“I was really proud of Ethan,” O’Hair said. “He came in and did what we needed him to do.”
Brown scored on the third play of the second quarter to re-establish Buhler’s 14-point lead. The Crusaders got the ball back, but fumbled on their first play and Bruce recovered at Buhler’s 22.
Andale tried to capitalize on the turnover with a halfback pass from Tristen Dagenais to Bruce, which fell incomplete. But on fourth-and-5 from Buhler’s 17, the Indians ran the play to the opposite side, and Dagenais hit a wide-open Bruce in the end zone to cut Buhler’s lead to 21-14.
With Andale having the wind at its back for the third quarter, Brown expected the Indians’ challenge to intensify.
“We knew they’d come out raging so we knew we had to keep our foot on their throat,” Brown said. “Against Augusta, we didn’t finish, so that’s what we focused on.”
Still, Andale tied the score on its first possession of the second half. A 71-yard run by Jace Stuever set up a fourth-and-goal touchdown run by Dagenais.
Andale tried to ride the momentum on its next possession. After the teams traded timeouts, Andale elected to go for it on fourth-and-6 from its own 45. But Baalmann’s pass went high and off Bruce’s hands, setting Buhler up for its game-winning drive.
After White’s touchdown, Andale drove into Buhler territory midway through the fourth quarter. But the Crusaders stopped Baalmann on a fourth-down run up the middle and took over with 4:58 to play.
Buhler, which ran 63 times for 304 yards, polished off the remaining time with its ground game. Jhet Burkhart’s 12-yard run gave the Crusaders a first down that allowed them to go into the victory formation.
“I don’t think all year long that we’ve played very well,” Warner said. “The first quarter proved we can play with anybody.
“It was a lot cleaner game for us. Our kids played well and they played hard.”
B – Goertzen 6 pass from White (Rose kick)
B – Brown 5 run (Rose kick)
A – Baalmann 3 run (Bugner kick)
B – Brown 9 run (Rose kick)
A – Bruce 17 pass from Dagenais (Bugner kick)
A – Dagenais 1 run (Bugner kick)
B – White 1 run (Rose kick)
Rushing – Andale, Stuever 4-86, Dagenais 20-67, Baalmann 7-6, D. Horsch 3-5, Richter 2-0. Buhler, Brown 39-194, White 16-62, Goertzen 4-29, Burkhart 4-19.
Passing – Andale, Baalmann 3-7-0-67, Dagenais 1-2-0-17, Richter 0-1-0-0. Buhler, White 2-4-0-25.
Receiving – Andale, D. Horsch 1-40, Baalmann 2-27, Bruce 1-17. Buhler, Wiehl 1-19, Goertzen 1-6.