To explain Service High's march into the state large-school football semifinals, you could cite Michael McCrae's most electrifying runs, Kahlil Bolling's thievery, La'Michael Fernandez's insanely acrobatic catch or Amu Aukusitino's generalship at quarterback.
Yet what best defined Service's 31-21 victory over Palmer on Saturday was this table turner: The Cougars took a page from the Palmer playbook -- burn time off the clock with sustained drives and take care of the ball -- to beat the Moose at their own game at Dimond Alumni Field.
Service's game-grabbing drive bridging the third and fourth quarters covered 15 plays and 72 yards, consumed 6 minutes, 48 seconds and culminated in McCrae's 1-yard run and Fernandez's two-point conversion run on a fake extra point.
All that gave the Cougars (8-1), who face Colony in the semis, a 31-14 lead with 10:27 left. And all that left Palmer (5-4), with an offense more methodical than mercurial, with too little clock to come back.
"Our coaches came out with a great scheme, and we basically conquered,'' said, McCrae who rushed nine times for 42 yards on the drive. "We played ball-control -- get it, and run it down their throats.''
Though Palmer countered with a 63-yard scoring drive capped by quarterback Jackson Buresh's 3-yard run to cut Service's advantage to 31-21, that march required 12 plays and 6:24, and left the Moose shy of time for a turnabout.
"We kind of wanted to match that (Palmer) mindset,'' said Service coach Jason Caldarera. "Our kids were being patient. Lot of credit to those guys up front -- the offensive line got a lot of push.''
And McCrae, not just using his startling quickness and change of speeds, but also powering through would-be tacklers, benefitted most. He carried a season high-tying 30 times for 199 yards and three touchdowns.
If it seems like McCrae has run for a mile this season, it is because he nearly has. He has racked 1,667 yards in nine games -- 93 yards shy of an actual mile.
Fourteen of McCrae's 30 carries resulted in either a first down or a touchdown.
"Defensively, we just couldn't stop them,'' said Palmer coach Rod Christiansen. "That's a good football team.''
Just as importantly, the Cougars took care of the football -- zero turnovers.
Palmer, meanwhile, committed three turnovers. Daniel Murakami and Bolling each picked off Buresh passes, and Bolling recovered a Buresh fumble within spitting distance of the Service end zone late to help seal victory.
"We just didn't finish a few times, and ended up with interceptions instead of touchdowns,'' Christiansen said. "We have a tremendous (junior) quarterback and he just tried to make too much of it a couple times.
"But that's quarterbacking -- it's a learning process.''
With Palmer trailing 31-21 and 2:36 left after Service went for it on fourth down from their own 32 and failed -- neither team punted in the game -- Buresh ran around the right end and was hit by Cougars defensive back Quentin Hill. The ball popped into the air and Bolling quickly grabbed it for a 32-yard return.
"Straight into my hands,'' Bolling said. "If they score, it's a one-possession game. That's the time you have to buckle down. We created an opportunity for ourselves and capitalized on it.''
Fernandez kept the ensuing Service drive alive -- the Cougars ate the rest of the clock -- with a leaping, juggling 47-yard catch of a pass from Aukusitino. Aukusitino took over at QB when starter J.J. Christy appeared to re-injure his knee on Service's second play from scrimmage. Aukusitino completed 9 of 14 passes for 112 yards and rushed five times for 41 yards.
"(Christy) helps me when I'm in there, and I help him when he's in there,'' Aukusitino said.
The teams traded long drives to start the game. Palmer opened with a 11-play, 55-yard march that finished with fullback David Sorenson's 5-yard run and chopped 5:10 of the clock. Service countered with a 10-play, 50-yard drive that took 4:37 and culminated with McCrae's 4-yard jaunt.
After Murakami's interception, McCrae scored on a 5-yard run for a 13-7 lead. Palmer answered with a nine-play, 54-yard drive Sorenson (seven carries, 59 yards) capped with a 14-yard run to take a 14-13 lead.
But Meghan Dotten's 35-yard field goal as time expired earned the Cougars a 16-14 halftime lead.
"That was huge for us to walk into the locker room with the lead,'' Caldarera said.
And after Service padded its lead throughout the second half, Bolling's fumble recovery and return captured the Cougars some cushion.
"That definitely sealed the deal,'' Caldarera said.
Find Doyle Woody's blog at adn.com/hockeyblog or call him at 257-4335.
ASAA/First National Bank
State Large-Schools Football Playoffs
Palmer 7 7 0 7 -- 21
Service 7 9 7 7 -- 31
Palmer -- Sorenson 6 run (Merritt kick), 6:50.
Service -- McCrae 4 run (Dotten kick), 2:13.
Service -- McCrae 15 run (kick failed), 11:51.
Palmer -- Sorenson 14 run (Merritt kick), 6:57.
Service -- 35 FG Dotten, :00.
Service-- Aukusitino 1 run (Bomar kick), 9:15.
Service -- McCrae 1 run (Fernandez run), 10:27.
Palmer -- Buresh 3 run (Merritt kick), 4:03.
First downs 19 19
Rushes-yards 41-179 37-245
Passing yards 110 112
Return yards 51 80
Passes 8-15-2 9-15-0
Punts 0-0.0 0-0.0
Fumbles-lost 2-1 0-0
Penalties-yards 4-51 10-74
RUSHING -- Palmer: Sorenson 7-59, Ahrens 14-53, Buresh 14-41, McCall 2-15, Clement 2-7, Chadwick 2-4. Service: McCrae 30-199, Aukusitino 5-41, Christy 1-5, Ellis 1-0.
PASSING -- Palmer: Buresh 8-15-2--110. Service: Aukusitino 9-14-0--112, Fernandez 0-1-0--0.
RECEIVING -- Palmer: Merritt 4-56, McCall 2-21, Sorenson 1-24, Christiansen 1-9. Service: Fernandez 5-80, Illalio 2-23, McCrae 1-3, Escalante 1-6.