By Josh Brown
CASSTOWN — The Miami East-Milton-Union season opener has already been a terrific rivalry for years.
This season, though? The game meant more on a number of levels.
The Miami East defense kept Milton-Union out of the end zone all night, four times stopping the Bulldogs in the red zone — including forcing two turnovers inside its own 20 in the second half alone. After scoring to open the second half and break a 3-3 tie, the Vikings took one of those turnovers and turned it into a touchdown drive, putting away a 17-3 victory Friday night at Miami East High School in what could potentially be a postseason preview after the Vikings moved up to Division V and into the Bulldogs’ playoff region.
“I’ve been coaching that same defense since 1991, and it’s a ‘bend but don’t break’ philosophy,” Miami East coach Max Current said. “We made Milton-Union drive it and eliminated their big, explosive plays — which was big, because (Zac) Shields and (Robbie) Grove can both run it. It was an awesome effort out of my guys, one of the best I’ve seen.”
Friday night’s matchup began as a war for field position. Milton-Union (0-1) chewed up almost 10 minutes on its opening drive, which last for 18 plays. But after converting three third downs and even one fourth down, the Bulldogs drove to the Miami East 13-yard line before the Vikings began pushing them backwards. A 5-yard loss, a 4-yard loss and a pair of incomplete passes forced Milton-Union to turn the ball over on downs with nothing to show for it.
“That works on a team’s psyche, too,” Current said. “You do all that work to get down there and then boom. It kind of takes the mojo away from them, and it gave us some life.”
“When it came time to keep our foot on the pedal, we just didn’t do it,” Milton-Union coach Mark Lane said. “We’ve got to take the victory in the field position battle. We kind of stopped ourselves, ran a play wrong which backed us up, and we kind of faltered. I think we hung our heads a little bit after that was over.
“When we had our chances to put our footprint on the game, we just didn’t do it. There were times where we could’ve taken over the game, but we couldn’t make it happen.”
A pair of penalties for Miami East (1-0) into a three-and-out, and Milton-Union’s Zac Shields returned the ensuing punt 44 yards to the Viking 16. On fourth-and-4 from the 10, though, Vincent Villella sacked Milton-Union quarterback William Morris for a 6-yard loss, once again forcing a turnover on downs.
The Vikings then set out on a 13-play drive as Villella and quarterback Ian Gengler combined to rush for 65 yards to get the ball down to Milton-Union’s 7-yard line. Facing a fourth-and-3, though, Miami East elected to kick a field goal, and Jonah Brautigam knocked it in from 25 yards out to give the Vikings the game’s first points with a 3-0 lead with 4:49 to go in the half.
Milton-Union had enough time to answer, though. A 14-yard quarterback keeper by Morris on third-and-3 from the Miami East 30 kept the drive going, and with only :03 left on the clock, Austin Brandon capped off a 14-play drive with a 27-yard field goal to tie the score at 3-3 heading into the locker room. The Vikings’ Ryan Dinardo returned the ensuing kickoff 53 yards but was pushed out at the Bulldog 25, keeping the score tied at the half.
The second half, though, belonged to Miami East.
Villella capped off a lengthy drive to open the third with a 2-yard touchdown run, but the Vikings missed the extra point and held a tenuous 9-3 lead with 8:11 left in the quarter. That’s where the score remained heading into the fourth, also, as both teams were forced to trade punts.
The Bulldogs drove all the way to the East 11 before fumbling the ball away early in the fourth, but another stop by the Milton-Union defense kept it in the game in the middle of the quarter. Miami East’s Justin Brown intercepted a pass, though, and with 4:04 left in the game, Brown finished off the ensuing Viking drive by punching in a 1-yard touchdown run. Villella ran in the two-point conversion try, as well, making the score 17-3 Miami East and all but sealing the game.
Milton-Union drove down the field one more time, but another interception on the Viking 15-yard line allowed Miami East to wrap up the win.
“That fumble was after a long, deep drive, and then we had two interceptions in the fourth,” Current said. “Those turnovers were big, emotional plays for us. Some guys rose to the occasion tonight. I told them all before the game that it was their turn, that it’s their time. And they played like it’s their time.”
It was a somber night for Viking fans, as well, as Miami East honored David Weaver before the game. Known as the “Voice of the Vikings” after serving as Miami East’s public address announcer for the past 40 years, Weaver passed away at age 73 one week before the start of the regular season.
“I know I have big shoes to fill,” said Branden Sphar, who took over Weaver’s duties Friday night. “I just hope I can do him justice and do as well as he did.”
Both teams are on the road in Week 2. Miami East travels to Lehman for another non-league matchup — a 7 p.m. start — while Milton-Union travels to Oakwood.
“We just got outplayed in that game,” Lane said. “The kids know it, too. We’ve got to be honest with ourselves, look in the mirror — and get it fixed.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.