By Josh Brown
WEST MILTON — Milton-Union’s opening-round playoff game didn’t began the way it hoped.
The Bulldogs were more than pleased with the ending, though.
After fifth-seeded Cincinnati Aiken returned the opening kickoff for a touchdown, No. 4 seed Milton-Union scored 34 unanswered points to finish the first half, cruising to a 55-18 Division V, Region 20 regional quarterfinal victory over the Falcons, the Bulldogs’ first playoff victory since a run to the regional final in 2012.
“It feels great,” Milton-Union coach Mark Lane said. “We talk about building this thing brick by brick, and these guys have put a lot of bricks into the program this year. It’s great to get this program back to where it needs to be.
“Two years ago, we had a couple of bad seasons. We knew we were putting good work in, though, and that things were going to work out as long as we kept doing it. And we’re starting to see the fruits of that.”
It was also a game that turned ugly right before halftime, as Aiken burned all its timeouts while Milton-Union was trying to kneel to kill the final 30 seconds with a 28-point lead. With 1:46 left in the third quarter, a fight on the field led to a Falcon ejection and the police escorting people off the field — with more ejections to follow in the fourth.
Aiken’s Tim Williams ran the opening kick back 85 yards for a touchdown, but after a failed two-point conversion try, the Falcons (7-4) led 6-0.
“It was kind of a shock,” said Milton-Union senior Blake Smith of the kick return. “We definitely came back from that. We knew we just had to keep playing, that there was a whole football game left to play. We had to stay up and stay excited about the entire game.”
“These kids have weathered storms before,” Lane said. “Williams is a heck of a football player, a heck of an athlete, and he made one heck of a play and made guys miss. Our guys knew he could do things like that because he’s so good. But they stayed composed, played one play at a time and played tough defense.”
But once things settled down and the Bulldogs took the ball from scrimmage, Aiken’s lack of discipline began to show as the Falcons were whistled for four consecutive offsides penalties, lining up in the neutral zone, before Milton-Union even officially ran a play. Smith capped off the drive with a 5-yard touchdown run to put the Bulldogs up 7-6 — the beginnings of a monster night for him.
After the Milton-Union defense forced a turnover on downs at midfield, the Bulldogs made quick work of the short field, with Smith again finishing things off with a 6-yard touchdown run. And after another turnover on downs, Krue Thwaits added one more score before the end of the first quarter, punching it in from 5 yards out to make it 21-6 with 3.5 seconds left in the first quarter.
Neither team punted in the entire game. Milton-Union cashed in each of its offensive possessions except for the final one of the first half, while Aiken turned the ball over on downs three times and threw two interceptions.
“I think they wanted to keep their offense on the field, because they’re so strong on offense,” Lane said of the many fourth-down attempts. “The kids defense did a good job of keeping the ball in front of them.”
On Aiken’s first drive of the second quarter, Milton-Union’s Alex Moore intercepted a pass on the Bulldog 17-yard line. The Bulldogs then took the ball those 83 yards on nine plays, with Smith breaking a 30-yard run then making a 24-yard reception from quarterback Zach Vagedes to put the ball on the 1-yard line. After a false start penalty backed the Bulldogs up, Vagedes hit Smith with a wide receiver screen for a 4-yard touchdown to make it 28-6 with 4:31 left in the half.
Lane noticed something about the 24-yard reception that set up the touchdown, though, that happened behind the scenes and made all the difference.
“Zach Vagedes put that ball out there — but before that, an Aiken defender was about to sack him,” Lane said. “And Keaton Lucous made one of the best blocks I’ve ever seen, out of nowhere. That made that play happen, and then Blake just made a phenomenal catch.”
Another turnover on downs at midfield on fourth-and-1 gave the Bulldogs another chance with the ball, and on the first place of the drive Vagedes threw a bomb to William Morris, who had gotten behind the defense, and Morris won the foot race to the end zone for a 60-yard touchdown that made it 34-6 with 46.4 seconds until the break.
On the first play of the Falcons’ ensuing drive, Smith intercepted a pass at the Milton 7 with 34 seconds left, and the Bulldogs tried to take knees to go into the locker room. But Aiken’s coach, upset with all the penalties in the first half, called timeouts after each play in a show of gamesmanship.
“They were firing off the ball, even though they were told not to,” Smith said. “We just made sure we kept our cool and didn’t retaliate. Because we knew we still had another week of football to play.”
Vagedes hit Thwaits with a 14-yard touchdown pass with 7:13 remaining in the third quarter to turn on the running clock, making the score 41-6. Late in the third, though, a scuffle along the Aiken sideline turned into a brief brawl, leading to an ejection. Things calmed down from there, and Zac Shields added an 11-yard touchdown with 10:56 left in the game to make the score 48-6.
Aiken quarterback Williams broke a 74-yard touchdown run to make it 48-12 with 10:13 to play, but Milton-Union answered with another quick drive, finishing off by an 11-yard Robbie Grove touchdown to make it 55-12 with 9:13 to go. A player from each side was ejected on the following drive, and later in the fourth Aiken’s coach was ejected. A 19-yard touchdown pass from Williams to Eriquan Price made it 55-18 with 2:19 to play, and Milton-Union killed the rest of the clock.
“It definitely feels great, especially being a senior,” Smith said. “It adds a whole lot to that.”
The Bulldogs will play top-seeded Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, which defeated No. 8 Blanchester 42-0, on Nov. 12 in the regional semifinals at a site to be determined Sunday.
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.