Emotions were running high for the Oregon football team Oct. 18. It was senior night, and possibly the last home game for 15 seniors listed on the roster.
The Hawks, 3-4 at the time, needed to handle Mendota that night, then Rock Falls a week later, to become eligible for the playoffs.
Oregon was coming off a 2-7 season in 2012, which snapped a 6-year playoff appearance streak. The current seniors were part of that, and didn’t want to experience that again. Angst was in the air, but for one Hawk, it was multiplied many times over.
For Ryan Miller, a starting defensive tackle and part-timer at offensive guard, Oct. 18 holds a special meaning every year. It was on that date in 2007 that his biological father, Julius Miller, committed suicide.
“When it comes up, it hits me,” Miller said. “When we had our senior night, that was a rough one.”
Ryan Miller was in sixth grade when Julius Miller took his own life in Florida, where had been living for 2 years. Julius lived in Dixon before moving to Florida. Ryan’s mother, Jennifer, never married Julius, and married her current husband, Troy Fox, 17 years ago.
Oregon ended up defeating Mendota, 35-20, to set up a win-or-go-home scenario for Week 9 against Rock Falls. Miller was in the middle of the action, and one play against Mendota stood out in his mind.
“I actually looked at our Hawk End [Pierce Dhaese] and told him, ‘This sack is for my dad,’ and I ended up getting a sack,” Miller said. “That was kind of cool. It was a very emotional game for me.”
Oregon punched its ticket to the Class 3A playoffs with a 41-18 victory against Rock Falls on Oct. 25. When it came time to prepare for first-round opponent Wilmington, however, Miller’s role changed.
Frank Lung, who had started all nine regular-season games at center, was suspended, and Miller assumed those duties. He was the logical choice, as he had been the center for the fresh-soph team two seasons ago and worked well with starting quarterback Tyler Blume.
Miller got first-team reps all week, and practiced snaps before and after practice each day with Blume.
“We were prepared,” Miller said. “We took a lot of snaps last week and made sure we were ready for it. We didn’t want anything to happen to cause the team to lose.”
Oregon coach John Bothe, an All-American center during his college days at Augustana, was pleased with what turned out to be a seamless transition.
“He stepped in and did really good physically, and I didn’t see any assignment errors,” Bothe said. “The snaps were good, which is always critical when you change centers.”
The shining moment for Miller and the rest of the offensive line came on the game’s biggest play. Oregon scored a touchdown with 9.6 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter to climb to within 21-20, then decided to go for two points and the win.
The play call – 37 Power – is a basic fullback dive that Miller described as “Oregon Hawk football – just cram it in.”
Senior fullback Sawyer Reynolds got the call on the play designed to go between left tackle Travis Burke and left guard Cody Flanagan. All the blocks, however, were critical against a crashing Wilmington defense, and Reynolds found his way into the end zone.
“It was one of those plays where everybody was involved, and everybody seemed to get their blocks on that play,” Bothe said.
“I was speechless,” Miller said. “When I saw [Sawyer] get in there, I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t get words out of my mouth.”
Oregon (6-4) was able to get past a team in Wilmington that was very similar in style. Both teams run the football, and pass only if absolutely necessary.
The challenge this week, again on the road, is to slow down an Aurora Christian (7-3) team known for its intricate passing attack orchestrated by former NFL wide receiver Don Beebe.
“Our hope during the game is at some point to get some stops,” Bothe said. “That’s the one thing that our defense has been able to do this year is get some stops. It’s hard to do it against their attack, because it’s so good and they’re so athletic.
“It’s a dual-phase with them. They have great, great athletes, but they’re well-coached. They run their routes well. It’s not playground ball out there, what they’re doing.”
Oregon’s last two playoff appearances ended at the hands of Aurora Christian. The Eagles won 38-0 in 2010, then 34-21 in 2011. The second of those matchups was in doubt until the final minutes, and it ended up being Aurora Christian’s closest playoff game on the way to a Class 3A state title.
Bothe is making film of that game available to his players this week via the Internet, and it serves two purposes. Both teams’ styles are the same, and it shows Oregon can compete with the two-time defending 3A champs.
“We felt we had a very good game plan going in,” Bothe said, “and we felt our players totally bought into the game plan, and the fact that it could be done. Whether we’re good enough to execute it, or if they’re flat-out too good, we’ll find out Saturday night, but we feel good about the ideas we’re taking into the game.”
Miller was a sophomore for the 2011 meeting between Oregon and Aurora Christian, and watched the game from the sidelines. He’s looking forward to this opportunity.
“We won’t go in with like, ‘Oh, they’re just going to kill us-type attitude,’” Miller said. “We think we can hang with them. If we’re still in it in the fourth quarter, I think we can do it.”
Oregon at Aurora Christian
When: 6 p.m. Saturday
Where: Aurora Christian H.S., 2255 Sullivan Road, Aurora
Radio: 95.7 FM
Twitter: Brian Weidman (@BrianWeidman)