Strength trumped speed Friday at Guss Schmiedt Field.
Just the way Alex Laurel likes it.
The fastest of the Buffaloes scored five touchdowns for second-seeded Manteca, which held off a late charge from No. 3 Inderkum in a 45-36 semifinal victory that propels it to the Sac-Joaquin Section Division III finals.
With 300-pound linemen Joe Eavenson, Isaac McClain and Billy Sharmoug and hard-hitting fullback Jacob LeDon to follow, who can blame him? Laurel piled up 182 yards on 29 rushes and added 72 yards through the air while showing that he has a little power of his own in his 170-pound frame.
“That was the best way to win this game,” Laurel said. “It feels good that we don’t have to go to something else that we don’t know. We just stick to our bread and butter every week. It has helped us succeed, I mean, we’re in the section championship.”
The Buffaloes’ dominance in the trenches and big-play defense helped them go on a 24-0 run in the second and third quarters. They led 38-14 going into the fourth.
“We’ve been undersized all year long and this was probably the biggest team we’ve played,” Inderkum coach Terry Stark said. “We still have to play with the energy that we played in the second half. We gave away pounds; we have to be faster and tougher. They leaned on us a little bit and were able to grind it out on the ground. It hurt us.”
As did Laurel’s highlight touchdown near the end of the first half. His catch-and-run play covered 45 yards and gave Manteca (12-1) a 24-14 cushion to sit on with the kickoff coming its way in the third quarter.
With 27.3 seconds left in the second, Laurel , split wide, used his speed on a slant pattern as Joe Menzel (8 of 13, 119 yards) threw him open up the middle. Laurel then powered his way into the end zone, dragging a 6-foot-2, 185-pound safety with him for the final 10 yards.
“It felt like forever dragging that guy,” Laurel said. “I didn’t even know I was dragging him. I just wanted (to get in) that end zone so bad.”
Marcus Montano’s point-after kick made it 24-14 with 17.4 seconds to go. Montano was a perfect 6-for-6 on PATs and added a 25-yard field goal to the Buffaloes’ scoring flurry.
Inderkum’s potent wing-T failed to score on five straight drives and coughed up three total turnovers.
Elijah Cooper’s thank-you-very-much touchdown return on an interception put Manteca ahead 14-7 with 4:50 left in the first quarter. Khalil Hudson was unable to reel in a routine screen pass, and the ball bounced high off his chest and into the arms of Cooper. He never broke stride as he snatched it up at the 32-yard line and took it the house.
“Big ol’ 42 (6-2, 220-pound tight end N.J. Falo) was blocking me and I was thinking ‘This dude is huge and I don’t know how I’m going to get around him,’” Cooper said. “I saw the screen coming and I went straight for him to wrap up and tackle.
“That ball ended up bouncing straight into my arms and I was like, ‘Wow, I got the ball!’ I knew No. 42 was somewhere behind me and that’s what I felt the whole time when I was running.”
Luis Reyes picked off a pass late in the third quarter, and LeDon recovered a fumble on the Tigers’ previous series. Linebackers Lechi Nkwocha had two tackles for losses, and Peter Moa and McClain each recorded a sack.
“Turnovers were big,” Manteca coach Eric Reis said. “To win championships you have got to play clean and I don’t think we had any turnovers tonight. That’s a formula to win.”
The Tigers (10-3) were still on the prowl in the fourth quarter, outscoring Manteca 22-7 over the final 12 minutes.
C.J. Spencer (13 of 27, 237 yards) — Inderkum’s athletic signal caller who has received offers from Army, Montana, UC Davis and UNLV — threw both of his touchdowns in the final frame and hooked up with his top receiver, Hudson (5 receptions, 104 yards), twice on two-point conversions.
Inderkum also recovered an onside kick and scored on Larry Hardy’s 92-yard kickoff return in the fourth.
“They never gave up,” Reis said. “Inderkum is one of the best teams in Sacramento and we’re better. Tonight we were.”
Manteca won’t know its final-round opponent until today, as No. 5 Sacramento (10-2) hosts No. 8 Christian Brothers (9-3) at 1 p.m. in the other semifinal. The title game is set for Friday, Dec. 6 at Lincoln High of Stockton with a 7:30 kickoff.
It will be the Buffaloes’ first section-final appearance since winning Division III and IV banners in 2005 and 06.