Buckaroos run just five offensive plays in first half, win second straight district championship

INDEPENDENT PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - Gianni Grasso takes the ball 44 yards for the touchdown in the second quarter of the Buckaroos' 68-8 win over Lowell. Grasso finished the game with 70 yards and two touchdowns on two carries.

Midway through the second quarter of Friday's Special District 1 championship between the No. 1 Buckaroos and No. 4 Red Devils, St. Paul senior T.J. Crawford recognized the pass play Lowell was about to run, jumped the pass from Lowell quarterback Odin Sinnett and returned the ball 31 yards untouched to the end zone.

It was Crawford's second pick-six and third touchdown of the half, giving the Bucks' a 30-0 lead that eventually became a 68-8 victory for the team's second straight Casco League.

"He's a great offensive player and he might be an even better defensive player," St. Paul coach Tony Smith said of his starting defensive back and quarterback.

A student of the game, Crawford takes it on himself to review film during the week and figure out where he can improve between Friday nights. When looking over the tape of the Bucks' week three 68-18 non-conference win over Lowell in September, he recognized an opportunity in one of the Red Devil's formations.INDEPENDENT PHOTO: PHIL HAWKINS - The Buckaroos have played their best defensive of the season over the past three weeks, holding their last three opponents to just 14 points combined.

"He asked the question during the week, 'When they run this, can I just drop out and get underneath that pass?'" Smith said. "That same exact play that they ran on the second pick was that play that he asked about."

Crawford's opportunistic play, coupled with St. Paul's near-flawless execution on offense in the first half, helped the Bucks take a 46-0 lead at the end of the second quarter despite only running five plays on offense.

After Lowell opened the game on offense, Crawford put the Bucks on the board on the sixth play of the game, intercepting Sinnett near midfield on fourth down and returning the ball 56 yards for the touchdown.

Following the Red Devils' second drive, which was stopped on downs in St. Paul territory, Crawford took the Bucks' first offensive play 63 yards to the house for another score.

Undeterred, Lowell mounted a 17-play, 10-minute drive on their next possession, converting on fourth down three times to advance into scoring territory. But the Bucks halted the Red Devils' fourth fourth-down conversion attempt, taking over the ball at their own 13-yard line. Two plays later, senior Saul Martinez took a pitch 83 yards up the right side of the field for another score.

That led to Lowell's fourth drive of the game that resulted in Crawford's second pick-six. Another stop on defense led to another one-play drive, this time with Gianni Grasso scoring from 44 yards out. St. Paul added one more score before the half, when Bryce Williams recovered a Lowell fumble with under a minute left to play, leading to Grasso's second touchdown of the night, this time from 26 yards out to make it 46-0 heading into the lockers.

Smith credited the team's performance to the offensive line, which lost all but one starter from last season.

"You would not recognize our team from the first point of the season to this point in the season, the amount of work that they've done," Smith said. "You can see offensive line-wise how consistent they were; a bunch of improvement from the first game."

Smith also praised the Bucks' defense, which was on the field for all but 13 minutes of play due to the efficiency of St. Paul's offense. Though Lowell gained 252 yards on the night, the Bucks kept the Devils from putting up any big plays. The longest gain for Lowell on the night was a 24-yard reception. As a result, St. Paul built a 68-0 lead before the Red Devils finally scored with three minutes remaining in the game.

"Our tackling tonight was as good as we have been all year, but that also has gotten better and better each week," Smith said. "You would not recognize this team from the first time we played (Lowell)."

Following halftime, St. Paul's reserves took over and led the rest of the way. Hunter Naumann led the team with 120 yards and two touchdowns on three carries. Grasso finished with 70 yards and two scores on two carries. In total, the Bucks ran just 18 offensive plays, all on the ground, for 413 yards and seven touchdowns.

With the top seed in the state playoffs secured, the No. 1 Bucks (9-0, 5-0 Special District 1) turn their attention to Elgin (5-3, 4-2 SD3) in the first round of the state playoffs on Friday at the rodeo grounds.

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