Buhler had expectations of owning one of the strongest offensive lines in Class 4A, a lofty goal it fell well short of in its season-opening loss to McPherson when the Crusaders rushed 38 times for 51 yards.
The performance left the offensive line wanting to make a statement like the one on Friday night when the Crusaders rushed for nearly 500 yards in a convincing 47-21 victory at Collegiate to knock off the previously-unbeaten No. 1-ranked team in 4A II.
“I’m blessed to have the line that I have,” said Buhler tailback Dalton Brown after rushing for 305 yards and four touchdowns. “They did a phenomenal job, so I give 100 percent of the credit to them. My success reflects all of their hard work.”
Buhler returned four all-state linemen from last season’s state championship run in Lawson Schultz (6 foot, 235 pounds), Braden Rose (6-0, 225), Brendan Webb (6-4, 210), and Brayden Lock (6-0, 205) with the size and experience advantage over their Collegiate counterparts. The Spartans are a fast team, but their weakness is their lack of size up front outside of Kansas-bound senior tackle Mac Copeland.
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The mismatch was evident from the start, as Buhler lined up in its I-Formation and consistently cleared gaping holes for Brown to glide through. He was able to build enough speed running free that Collegiate’s second level struggled to bring him down with Brown running full speed and with his arsenal of spin moves, jukes, and cutbacks.
“It’s a lot of fun to call the plays when everything you do is working like that,” Buhler coach Steve Warner said. “That’s a credit to our offensive line doing their job.”
Collegiate coach Mike Gehrer knew the Spartans were at a disadvantage in the trenches, but hoped his team’s speed could be the counter. Buhler even negated that by matching Collegiate’s speed on the edges.
“Their line owned the game, really on both sides of the ball,” Gehrer said. “We knew they were going to be very, very good up front and they won the battle up there. They were so aggressive off the ball. We couldn’t get around them on the perimeter. They were beating us to the outside.”
Brown scored the first two touchdowns of the game, then Buhler took a 21-0 lead late in the second quarter when Ben Epp connected with a streaking Dalton Smyres on a 47-yard touchdown pass down the left sideline.
Meanwhile, Buhler’s defensive line — consisting of Webb, Rose, Schultz, and Cade McLean — was a dominant force in the game.
Collegiate quarterback Cody McNerney is one of the most dynamic athletes in Kansas and thrives when he is able to escape the pocket and improvise. There was rarely enough time for improvisation on Friday with Buhler’s front four crashing down and bottling McNerney up.
The pressure from Buhler’s front four was so significant that Collegiate had to shift from four- and five-receiver sets to leaving two running backs in the backfield to serve as extra blockers for McNerney.
“I thought our d-line did an outstanding job and they did a great job of keeping pressure on (McNerney) the whole time,” Warner said. “We knew he was going to hit his plays and he did. He had some great ones, but I thought our kids did a great job up front with the pressure. We didn’t have to blitz and that’s a credit to the guys up front.”
McNerney still threw for 254 yards on 18 of 34 throwing with a pair of long touchdowns, a 36-yarder to Colin Egan just before halftime and a 65-yard strike to Grant Morrow in the second half. Will Sahatjian scored the final touchdown on an 80-yard run.
But Collegiate’s offense depends on McNerney to keep it balanced with his running game, a facet that was taken away by Buhler’s defense. Outside of the 80-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter, Collegiate’s other 17 rushes went for negative-8 yards.
“They made Cody a pocket passer and that’s something he’s still good at, but that’s not his game,” Gehrer said. “He’s a special athlete and we like to get him on the move, so we’ve got to do a better job up front to allow him to do that. It’s only Game 3. It’s not the end of the season. We’re going to get back to work and we’ll get better.”
Collegiate would never come within 14 points after Buhler took its 21-0 lead, as Brown ran wild for much of the third quarter to put the game out of reach. Jhet Burkhart added 77 rushing yards, including a 53-yard touchdown run.
“There’s no better feeling when you hit that block and then two seconds later Dalton is running down the field,” Schultz said. “It’s a great feeling as a lineman knowing you just helped your running back score a touchdown.”
After losing to McPherson, Buhler made a statement entering into next Friday’s showdown with No. 2-ranked Maize South, which is 3-0 and has shut out all three of its opponent so far this season.
But more importantly to Buhler’s seniors, they feel like they earned redemption on Friday by beating Collegiate handily on its home field. Last season the Spartans beat Buhler 45-21 on Buhler’s home field, which was the Crusaders only loss of the season until their title-game defeat to Bishop Miege.
“I’ve never wanted to win a game more than I wanted to win tonight,” Schultz said. “Last year we weren’t ready to play and we were embarrassed and lost at home. We wanted to come out and make a statement. People wrote us off after we lost our first game and I thought we proved a point and showed why we’re one of the best teams in Kansas.”
B—Da. Brown 7 run (Rose kick)
B—Da. Brown 12 run (Rose kick)
B—Smyres 47 pass from Epp (Rose kick)
C—Egan 36 pass from McNerney (Harris kick)
B—Burkhart 53 run (kick failed)
C—Morrow 65 pass from McNerney (Harris kick)
B—Da. Brown 60 run (Rose kick)
B—Da. Brown 46 run (Rose kick)
C—Sahatjian 80 run (Harris kick)
B—Hawkins 60 run
Rushing—Buhler, Da. Brown 27-305; Burkhart 7-77, Hawkins 3-65, Epp 7-15, Farminer 1-2, Foulk 1-(-2); Sahatjian 2-82, Morrow 1-1, Egan 1-0, McNerney 14-(-11).
Passing—Buhler, Epp 4-7-62-1; Collegiate, McNerney 19-34-255-1.
Receiving—Buhler, Smyres 2-49, Da. Brown 1-13, Burkhart 1-0; Collegiate, Egan 5-116, Morrow 4-79, DeVore 4-2, Simms 3-23, Reddy 1-27, Nassif 1-7, Sahatjian 1-1.