Bucks prevail in battle of unbeatens
ST. PAUL — Friday night's match-up between St. Paul and Santiam had all the makings of a classic showdown.
Coming out of non-league play, the No. 1 Buckaroos and No. 7 Wolverines entered the contest as the leading contenders in the Tri-River Conference and played in a thriller last year, with St. Paul winning 29-27 on the road.
Santiam was eying a measure of revenge and the inside track at the league crown at the rodeo grounds, but it was the Bucks that looked like a championship outfit in a convincing 38-12 victory.
"We knew it was going to be a punch-in-the-mouth game," senior tight end and linebacker Campbell Smith said. "They're a great team and our whole league is full of good teams, so we knew it was going to be a battle. Every chance we had to make a big play, we made it and made some great plays on D. The O-line just blocked tremendous tonight and helped us get 38 on them and they have a great defense."
St. Paul was the one doing most of the punching, figuratively speaking, especially in the first half.
The Bucks opened with a long completion from quarterback Holden Smith to wide receiver Jaidyn Smith on their first play from scrimmage, setting up a Saul Martinez touchdown run three plays later.
St. Paul was on the verge of getting the ball back, but the Wolverines converted on fourth down and 20 thanks to a strike from quarterback Colton Thurston to Sean Horning, who out leapt two defenders to haul in the pass at the 1-yard-line.
Santiam scored on the next play, but the two-point conversion attempt failed to leave the Bucks with a 7-6 lead 3:43 into the first quarter.
St. Paul was prepared with an answer, however, marching 72 yards in 13 plays to score again, this time on a two-yard pass from Holden Smith to Campbell Smith that made it 14-6.
Linebacker Zach Brentano then set the Bucks up with a short field at the Wolverines' 29-yard line by forcing and recovering a fumble from Thurston on Santiam two plays later.
A snap that sailed over Holden Smith's head actually made that field longer, but the senior signal caller later found Jackson open down the left sideline for a 36-yard touchdown to convert on fourth and 30 on the third play of the second quarter. The ensuing extra point failed to make it 20-6, but the visitors were left reeling.
It only got worse as Jackson intercepted Thurston on Santiam's next possession, returning the ball to the 50-yard line with 9:55 remaining in the first half. The Bucks needed just five plays to hit pay dirt, as Martinez picked up his second touchdown on an 11-yard rumble up the middle to make it 26-6.
The Wolverines finally got a stop when Holden Smith was intercepted along the sideline, but they were unable to cash in on the turnover, as a holding call and two incompletions forced them to punt.
The first half ended in a flurry of mistakes, as defensive lineman Chris Kelly sacked Thurston and forced a fumble, but Santiam got the ball back four plays later when Jordan Lanham intercepted Smith with 55 seconds to play.
Jackson, however, returned the favor on the next play, intercepting Thurston and returning the ball deep into Wolverines territory.
"DBs have done a great job all year and it's really been a strength for us," SPHS coach Tony Smith said. "They continued to do that tonight."
Two plays later, Holden Smith connected with Campbell Smith again, this time for a 17-yard score with 18 seconds remaining in the half to make it 32-6.
"(Holden) had a great game," Campbell Smith said. "He was dropping dimes and when the ball is right there every time, you've got to make the play, so you can't drop it."
St. Paul forced a turnover on downs to open the second half and junior running back Justin Herberger scored on a seven-yard run to make it 38-6, pretty much stamping out any hope of a Wolverine comeback with 6:39 left in the third.
While the Bucks scored six touchdowns, it was the defense that proved to be the difference and that effort was led by defensive lineman Alex Dela Cerda, Chris Kelley and Cody Thompson.
"Their running attack has been very good in their first four games and they run an option offense, which forces you to make sure you have your assignments," Coach Smith said of Santiam. "Our kids were very disciplined. Coach Davidson coordinates that and did a great job during the week of getting those guys prepared. We played really tough, physical defense. I was just really proud of our kids. They're a good football team."
Offensively, the Wolverines (4-1, 0-1 TRC) focused their efforts on limiting Herberger, who has proven to be St. Paul's big-play threat in the running game. While Santiam was pretty successful in that, holding him to 62 yards on 14 carries, Martinez was effective running up the middle and Holden Smith directed a dangerous passing attack.
Martinez rushed 19 times for 91 and two touchdowns, helping set up his quarterback for an 11-for-17 performance for 177 yards and three scores.
"We were able to spread the ball," Coach Smith said. "They did a great job stopping Justin, so that was good to see other guys (step up). I thought Saul had a decent game and we were able to run the ball inside with him pretty consistently, especially in the first half. It was just a good all-around win."
Jackson had 114 yards and one touchdown receiving, as well as two interceptions, but did not play in the second half, instead resting what appeared to be a sore shoulder. Campbell Smith hauled in five receptions for 56 yards and two scores.
Next up for the No. 1 Bucks will be rival Kennedy Friday for homecoming at the rodeo grounds. Although the Trojans don't look as formidable as they have in previous years, having started this season 1-4, they have not yet lost to St. Paul since it joined the 2A ranks three years ago.
"It's always big," Campbell Smith said. "JFK is our rival. They've beaten us the past three years and we know they want to beat us and they know we want to beat them. That makes it fun."