LAKEVILLE - Blue Earth Area earned a Final Four spot at the Metrodome, and it was just what the doctor ordered.
Buc defensive coordinator Travis "Doc" Armstrong's Class AAA-leading defense slammed the brakes on a pair of fourth-quarter St. Croix Lutheran drives deep in Blue Earth Area territory to dethrone the 2011 state champion Crusaders during Saturday night's state football quarterfinals in Lakeville.
Linebacker/fullback Carter Hanson recovered two fourth-quarter fumbles and delivered the Minnesota Associated Press' No. 2-ranked Bucs' game-sealing touchdown to power a 21-12 triumph over the No. 3 Crusaders at Panther Stadium.
SIDESTEPPING — Blue Earth Area kick returner Gus Phillips (6) sidesteps St. Croix Lutheran defender Ian Sargent (32), who gets blocked by the Bucs’ Jacob Pettit, during the two teams’ Class AAA state quarterfinal football game on Saturday night at Panther Stadium in Lakeville. Photo by Leanna Becker
Blue Earth Area (11-0) advances to face No. 5-ranked Perham (10-1) at 4:30 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 17, in the Class AAA state semifinals at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. The Yellowjackets reached the Dome via a 42-8 quarterfinal victory over Esko.
St. Croix Lutheran ended its season with a 9-2 overall record.
"A number of people said throughout the season that our defense was good, but we didn't know exactly how good it was until tonight," said Armstrong, whose 4-3 scheme topped all Class AAA teams by allowing only 9.9 points per game. "I think our defense's goal-line stand at the start of the fourth quarter was a defining moment for us."
Clinging to a 14-12 lead on the heels of running back David Franta's 8-yard TD trot and Felix Harseim's PAT kick, the Buc defense delivered the first of four consecutive pivotal stops to earn a trip to Minneapolis.
St. Croix Lutheran running back Jackson Goplen, who missed half of the season due to a high ankle sprain, broke tackles for 22 of his team-best 88 rushing yards to reach Blue Earth Area's 6 to end the third quarter.
The hard-driving Goplen took a handoff over the right side, spun and nearly reached the goal line to set up a first-and-goal inside the 1.
"We knew they were going to pound it at us, so our defense had to step up in that situation. Our linemen did a nice job of shedding their blockers to allow our linebackers to get into the backfield," Hanson said in reference to teammates Greg Claeys, Micah Twedt, Brad More, Steven Plocker and Gus Phillips.
Claeys and Hanson combined to actually drop Crusader running back Trever Koester back to the 1-yard line on second down before Claeys put the clamps on Goplen on a run up the middle on third down.
Hanson, Claeys and the rest of the Bucs' defense swarmed under Goplen on an option toss around left end to take over on downs with 10:05 remaining in regulation.
"That was a great defensive stand," said Blue Earth Area head coach Randy Kuechenmeister.
After linebacker Caleb Olson and the Crusader defense forced a three-and-out Buc series, Dan Mackenthun returned the ensuing punt 16 yards to Blue Earth Area's 29.
Facing fourth-and-10 after three incompletions, St. Croix Lutheran quarterback Lincoln Hochmuth lofted a pass along the Crusaders' sideline, only to watch 6-foot-4 safety Isaac Darrington utilized his outstanding vertical leap to intercept the toss at the Bucs' 30.
Koester and the Crusader defense, however, held again, forcing a punt with 5:49 remaining in the fourth quarter.
The football-hawking Hanson then scooped up an errant St. Croix Lutheran pitch at the Crusaders' 32 only 42 seconds later to set up the game-clinching drive.
Phillips, who topped all rushers with 90 yards, including a 70-yard TD on a sweep run with 6:45 left in the second quarter, picked up 14 yards on two carries after Hanson's initial 2-yard gain.
Hanson then took the next handoff around left end, cut outside and scored on a 16-yard run. Harseim's key PAT kick gave the Bucs a 21-12 lead with 3:31 left in the game.
"I saw an opening, took the edge and got into the end zone," said Hanson. "I'm usually the guy who blocks on runs, so it was nice to get one (TD)."
Hanson and Blue Earth Area's defense put an exclamation point on the victory during the next series as linebackers Justin Ritter and Kysten Zierke delivered the fumble-causing hit before Hanson scooped up the loose football again with time winding down.
"I just happened to be in the right place at the right time on both of those (fumble recoveries)," said Hanson. "We knew as a team that it would take four quarters of disciplined football to win, and we stuck to our assignments and got the job done.
"To make it to the Dome is something you dream about as a kid, and we made it."