BUHLER — McPherson High’s defense was as good as advertised.
The offense was better than expected.
Along with quality work from the special teams, including a backbreaking 59-yard punt return for a touchdown and some tremendous punting, the Bullpups had it all working on Friday to outscore Buhler 33-21 in a titanic showdown of Class 4A Division I ranked teams that was even better than the pre-game hype.
It was MHS’ first victory in Buhler in 32 years and the teams have now split the last six meetings. The Crusaders had entered the night ranked No. 2 in most polls, while MHS was anywhere from No. 3 to No. 5, but now will probably be No. 2.
“It feels great,” said MHS coach Jace Pavolvich, whose faith in his team has never wavered even though it faced a Buhler team that returned much of its firepower from last year’s Class 4A Division I state runner-up team. “There’s no question our kids executed the schemes very well. Going into it, defense was our strength and our defense paved the way for us. They kept us in the game. Our defense is our strength, we’re going to rely on that.”
But the third-year Bullpup coach could not have imagined his team being able to put 33 points on the board with a rookie offensive line going up against a fearsome foursome upfront, including South Dakota University commit Brandon Webb.
“Offensively, we’ve got to do a better job of taking care of the ball (five turnovers in the game), but the nature of the beast is they’re putting seven guys in the box,” Pavlovich said. “We talked about this, you can’t block seven guys in the box very effectively. So there’s no reason to beat our head against the wall, we’ll just throw the ball.”
And junior quarterback Kyler Hoppes, in his first start, did just that. He shook off a pair of interceptions to complete 11 of 17 passes for 246 yards and three TD strikes, two of them in the first half to Ben Nikkel and Talyn Huff, Huff’s coming just before half on a 50-yard screen just when it appeared MHS might be content to take a 13-0 lead into the break. Hoppes also had a TD plunge and his punting pinned the Crusaders deep on numerous occasions.
“Our screen game is huge for us,” Pavlovich said. “Our offensive line did a great job of protecting. If you’ve got guys teeing off on you, you’ve got to have a great screen game to counteract that.”
It was 19-0 at the half. And halftime was the worst thing that could have happened for the Bullpups.
Buhler scored on its first drive of the second half and then two plays later, Hoppes was picked off, which the Crusaders quickly converted into a score to make it 19-14. A Bullpup fumble on the very next offensive play gave Buhler the ball at the MHS 24, seemingly a precursor to another Crusader score.
But the game then turned. On a fourth-and-goal from inside the one, the Bullpups stoned All-Stater Dalton Brown, then shocked the Crusaders when Hoppes hooked up with Chandler Wiard for 94 yards, setting up a 5-yard zip from Hoppes to Hoover to make it 26-14.
After a pair of Cody Stufflebean sacks stuffed Buhler’s next drive, Hoover raced 59 yards with a punt return to make it 33-14 with 8 minutes to go. The Crusaders did score to make it 33-21, but a Drew Labertew interception iced it.
Amazingly, the Crusaders snapped it 68 times to just 34 for the Bullpups, but MHS held the advantage in yards, 266-211. The Bullpups held Brown, who rushed for almost 2,000 yards last year, to just 49 yards on 18 carries and put a fierce beating on quarterback Ben Epp, who had 11 rushing attempts where he lost yardage. Epp showed a lot of courage by completing 21 of 29 passes in the face of the aggressive MHS rush for 176 yards.
Wiard finished with 135 yards on four catches, Nikkel had two for 55 and Huff two for 48.
Pavlovich threw a lot of praise Buhler’s way and knows it will probably run the table the rest of the regular season.
“That’s the best front seven in all of 4A and I’d include Miege in that,” said Pavlovich, whose team rushed for only 20 yards. “Our offensive line is going to be just fine. That front seven was just so strong. We had to do things in the passing game to counteract that.”
The Bullpups will have to come down off their cloud to take on Maize South on Friday on the Mavericks’ home turf. Maize South defeated MHS twice, including a 35-27 playoff win that ended the Bullpups’ season. The Mavs were a 47-0 winner over Circle on Friday.
“Our kids are grounded,” Pavlovich said. “I told them on the field let’s enjoy this one. But 8 o’clock tomorrow there’s a lot of things we’ve got to get fixed.”