WEST ST. PAUL - Cannon Falls offense revolves around the big play. After a couple runs up the gut, the Bombers will fake a handoff in their T-formation and try to catch a team off-guard for a big gain.
Against top-seeded and top-ranked St. Croix Lutheran, Cannon Falls was able to chip away at the Crusaders but were never able to break the big play.
And a bigger problem: St. Croix Lutheran had little trouble breaking free for huge gains.
With six plays going for 35-plus yards, including three first-half touchdowns from 60-plus yards, the Crusaders (9-0) won their seventh straight Section 4AAA title on Friday, beating the third-seeded Bombers, 49-12.
"We just weren't able to pop that big play that we usually get," said Cannon Falls head coach Dan Meyers. "They had the middle plugged up really good. They got really good players and this was a tough matchup for us."
It took all of 17 seconds for SCL's big-play ability to show when, on the first play from scrimmage, running back Mike Stern broke free for a 66-yard touchdown run.
On the Crusaders' second drive, Stern started the seven-play, 96-yard drive with a 70-yard run before eventually punching in a 1-yard score.
Stern finished the game with 188 yards on 13 carries and three touchdowns to spearhead a SCL rushing attack that outgained Cannon Falls 406-112.
"They're pretty quick and fast and physical," senior linebacker/running back Hayden Strain said. "It was pretty hard to defend (the triple option). ... In the beginning we were over-pursuing a little bit and they were cutting it back. We fixed that and shut it down a little better later."
The Bombers' first drive showed promise as they got all the way down to SCL's 4-yard line. But consecutive sacks from Nehamiah Hammick and Zach Yanta pinned Cannon Falls back down to the 18-yard line. Quarterback Chase Reber threw up a prayer that ended up in receiver Javon Ripley's hands before he was stopped at the 4-yard line, turning the ball over on downs.
"Our fakes were working pretty good," Strain said about that first offensive drive.
With Stern's big runs making it a two-score game after the first quarter, the Crusaders broke out more big plays in the second through the air.
After forcing a three-and-out, SCL quarterback Jon Liesener threw a 65-yard bomb to North Dakota commit Garett Maag for score. Then with 1 minute, 1 second to go before half, Maag turned a short route into a 61-yard touchdown for a 28-0 edge at halftime.
"Their offensive line is so well coached and so precise in their blocking that it's really tough to match up against," Meyers said. "We knew they were going to give that dive. But their line gets off the ball and their blocking is so good, it's tough to stop."
With SCL ahead 42-0 in the third quarter after a 13-yard run from Stern and a 3-yard scamper from James Chernohorsky, the Bombers finally got on the board with a 13-yard touchdown run from Strain.
Both teams traded touchdowns in the fourth quarter, with Dorrell Bratton punching in a 10-yard run for the Crusaders, followed by a 4-yard score from Gage Hildebrandt with 7:10 to play.
Ripley led the Bombers' offense with 50 receiving yards on four catches to go with 16 rushing yards. Hildebrandt ran the ball 10 times for 50 yards, followed by 35 yards on eight carries for Strain. Reber was 8 of 14 passing for 88 yards and an interception. Strain led the defense with 11 tackles.
In what has become routine, Cannon Falls (4-7) saved its best for the postseason, reaching a section title game for the fourth time in six years despite finishing the regular season over .500 in just one of those seasons.
"Our seniors just really stepped up," Strain said. "The Lake City win (in the quarterfinals) gave us the momentum to keep going and get to a section final."
Meyers added, "We focus on improving all season, whether we're winning or losing. We lost a lot of games this year, but each time we lost we took that as a learning experience. ... We're going to be a better team in November than we are in September. Our guys have embraced that a lot."