THAYER 22, MILLER 32
These are not the same-old Miller Cardinals.
Certainly not the same group that had found the win column just five times over the past five seasons before this year.
For sure not the same group that went winless last season and brought a 16-game losing streak into the 2006 season.
Definitely not the same group, not by a longshot.
These Miller Cardinals are a much-improved bunch, a young team featuring some explosive talent. A group led this year by legendary coach Harv Welch, the mastermind of past championship teams at Lebanon and Marionville.
The Thayer Bobcats got a first-hand look at Welch's renovation project Nov. 3, as Thayer traveled to Miller for the last District 3 outing of the year.
And while Welch's work might not be totally complete, the Cardinals proved they are heading for brighter days with a 32-22 win over the Bobcats.
The loss ends Thayer's season with an overall mark of 4-6 for the second straight year, 1-2 in district play. Miller improved to 5-5 and 1-2 in District 3 action with the win over the Bobcats.
While Thayer's inability to come through on fourth down inside the Miller 15-yard line on several occasions cost the Cats big-time, a pair of massive special teams plays in the second quarter was the difference in the game.
The Cardinals used two kickoff returns for touchdowns, one for 86 yards, the other for 80, to grab control of the game just before intermission. Miller then shut out Thayer over the course of the final two quarters to prevail by 10 points.
Heading into their clash, both teams were playing for a shot to even their season mark, since the Marionville Comets (10-0, 3-0) had wrapped up their fourth straight district title the night before with a 48-14 smackdown of Greenfield (8-2, 1-2). Lee Flood ran for 318 yards and five TDs in the Comets' win over Greenfield.
It looked early like Thayer would be the team to end the year with a .500 mark.
On Miller's first series of the night, Luke Martin sacked Cardinal quarterback Josh Harlow to pin Miller deep on its side of the field.
Things quickly turned from bad to worse for Miller, as Michael Lowther picked off Harlow one snap later, giving the football to an eager group of Bobcats.
Thayer quarterback Jacob Eckman made sure this opportunity did not pass in vain by hitting tight end Jacob Sims with a 30-yard touchdown pass two snaps later. The 2-point try was denied, but Thayer had managed to grab a 6-0 lead at the 10:31 mark of the first.
Miller responded with a lengthy scoring march that hit paydirt five and a half minutes later.
On fourth-and-goal from the Thayer 4-yard line, Spencer Goodman (127 yards rushing) posted the first of his three TDs on the night by crashing across the goal line. The point-after was no good, locking the game at 6-all.
The Cardinals shook loose of this tie score with a huge gamble that paid off in Spades on Miller's next offensive series.
Faced with a fourth-and-1 at their own 40, the Cardinals ignored conventional wisdom and went for it.
This turned out to be a good call as Goodman slammed through the line of scrimmage, shaking off a pair of hits, and rambled 62 yards for a touchdown. The PAT gave Miller a 13-6 lead after the first quarter.
The Cats got off to a terrific start in the second quarter, but they just couldn't keep Miller from stealing the show in the frame.
On Thayer's first possession of the second, Lowther (114 yards rushing) followed some nifty lead blocking from Big John Barnett and Josh Huckabee into the end zone from nine yards out at the 11:29 mark. The Bobcats lined up for the point-after kick, but Sims carried the ball in for 2 points, after a good fake kick and putting Thayer on top 14-13.
Lowther, a junior, racked up 1,156 yards rushing for Thayer this season.
This lead lasted for less than 10 seconds.
Miller's Ben Logan took the ensuing kick and ran for an 86-yard touchdown to knock Thayer back on its heels. The PAT was no good, but Miller had climbed in front, 19-14.
Thayer put together a promising drive the next time it touched the ball and moved from its own 44 to the Cardinal 5-yard line.
Faced with fourth-and-inches from the Miller 5-yard line, the Bobcats had the air let out of their sails when the Cardinals bowed up and stopped Thayer short of a first down, taking the ball over on downs.
As devastating as this was to Thayer, the Bobcats didn't hang their heads. Rather, they got the football right back.
Goodman fumbled at the Miller 9-yard line and Barnett scooped the football into the Bobcats' possession at the Cardinal 15-yard line.
The Bobcats made good on a fourth down play this time out, with Eckman scampering 14 yards for a TD on fourth-and-9, turning a busted pass play into a quarterback keeper. Eckman also carried in the 2-point conversion to swipe the lead for Thayer, up 22-19.
Then lightning struck again for Miller.
Darren Clarke fielded the ensuing kickoff and blasted 80 yards up the middle of the field for Miller's second kickoff return for a score of the second quarter. The PAT gave the Cardinals a 26-22 lead at the half, a lead they would not squander.
Neither side could score in the third, but the Bobcats did drive onto Miller's side of the field early in the frame.
On fourth-and-3 from the Miller 28, the Bobcats were stopped short of a first down, giving the ball back to Miller.
The Cardinals, too, had little success on their first series, as Kris Frillman stopped Goodman on third-and-long deep in Miller turf, forcing a Cardinal punt.
The punt turned out to be short, just 13 yards, giving Thayer the football at the Cardinal 37.
Instead of taking advantage of this short field, Thayer fumbled the ball back to Miller, snuffing out a golden shot at a touchdown.
While Thayer would fail to convert two more fourth downs in the fourth -- one on fourth-and-3 from the Miller 10, the other on fourth-and-7 from the Cardinal 27 -- Miller had no such troubles.
On fourth-and-2 from the Bobcat 13, Derek Jack plunged through for a first down to set up Miller's last score of the night.
Goodman crossed the goal line from a yard out at the 9:37 mark of the final frame to wrap up Miller's 32-22 victory.