EAST CHICAGO | It's been a tough year to be Jim Pickett. First, he had to take over for a legend in Griffith when Russ Radtke left for New Prairie. Nobody treasures the idea of taking over for a big name.
But Friday night at Pete Rucinski Field in East Chicago, it might've been the darkest Friday night of the autumn. The Panthers were pounded by The Times No. 9 Cardinals 35-0.
And making matters even worse, star quarterback Austin Brown was injured at the end of the second quarter and did not return to action on either side of the ball in the second half.
“Not today, guys,” Pickett said while running off the field after the game. “This hasn't been a good day.”
E.C. (8-1) finished its regular season with a historic record. Only the 1991 Cardinals ended it all with only one loss.
As the players gathered joyously after the big win, one Cardinal shouted, “The train has just started to roll.”
The Cards' defense didn't shut down the Panthers (3-6) completely, but they forced multiple turnovers and had several game-changing plays. The biggest came with 8:53 left in a scoreless second quarter.
Martayveus Carter blocked a 32-yard field goal attempt by the Panthers and returned the ball 85 yards for a score. Daniel Flores' extra point gave the Cards a 7-0 lead.
“That was a huge momentum changer,” E.C. Coach Stacy Adams said. “That was big. Not only for the play but it allowed our offense to make some adjustments on the sideline.”
Later in the frame, Cards quarterback Carlos Fernandez, who had thrown two early interceptions, hit Tre'Quan Burnett on a 34-yard scoring strike at 3:56 left to give the Cardinals a 14-0 lead, which they took into halftime.
“My teammates kept telling me not to worry about those picks,” Fernandez said. “They kept me up, the whole team.”
Fernandez would hit Burnett on another scoring pass in the second half.
“Our defense is great,” he said.
Late in the second quarter Griffith's Brown was nailed by three Cardinals on a fourth-down pass. He got up slowly and didn't return.
“We knew we had to slow Austin Brown down,' Adams said. “Everything they do goes through him. He's a great player. But we were able to keep him in check for the most part.”
The celebration in the packed East Chicago stands was special. It's been a long time since this blue-collar town has been this excited about its football team.
“This is the proudest day of my life,” Central linebacker Patrick Shaw said.
“We talked all week,” Carter said. “Our defense had to execute.”
Fernandez was 5-of-11 for 151 yards and two scores. He also had three interceptions.
“We're excited now,” he said. “But we have a huge opponent next week (Hammond in sectional opener). It's not like we're going to walk into their house and destroy them. We just have to play our game and do our thing.”