MOKANE — In the few instances where the South Callaway Bulldogs had a slight opening to make up some ground, they were constantly rebuffed by the Thayer Bobcats.
Thayer senior quarterback Jayce Haven ran for three touchdowns and junior running back Jackson Willison delivered a pair of scores as the third-ranked Bobcats subdued South Callaway 42-15 in the Class 1 quarterfinals Saturday afternoon.
The Bulldogs — who couldn't recover from a 21-0 first-half deficit — ended the season with a 7-4 record. South Callaway was making its second consecutive appearance in the Class 1 quarterfinals.
Thayer — appearing in the state quarterfinals for the sixth straight year — extended its winning streak to 11 games while raising its season record to 11-1. The Bobcats finally broke through after losing their previous five quarterfinal matchups, including three to the eventual Class 1 state champion.
"That's what really good teams do — they stop the momentum when they feel like the other team is gaining (it)," Bulldogs head coach Zack Hess said. "There were two or three times throughout the game that (we're) one play away from maybe really swinging and really grabbing the momentum.
"That's a credit to the (Thayer) players, too, because there's points in the game where they could have let it slip away from them, but they kept fighting. We were really close to making that big play that we really needed. Again, that's what good teams do, they stop you from doing that."
Unable to crack the Bobcats' scrappy defense, South Callaway had just 23 yards of total offense and no first downs when the Bulldogs caught a break just before halftime. After junior quarterback Sam Buckner was sacked for a 7-yard loss, Thayer was flagged for targeting and that gave South Callaway its initial first down at the Bulldogs' 49-yard line.
On the next play, Buckner pitched the ball to sophomore backup quarterback Jacob Martin — who was lined up as a receiver — on an end-around. Martin pulled up and heaved a pass down the South Callaway sideline to senior running back Hayden Vaught for a 51-yard touchdown with 3.1 seconds left.
Sophomore kicker Caleb Pezold tacked on the extra point to bring the Bulldogs within 21-7 at the break.
South Callaway then received the ball to start the second half and finally found some offensive rhythm, moving 40 yards in 12 plays to the Bobcats' 14. However, Vaught was stopped for no gain on fourth-and-3 and Thayer took over on downs.
After a scoreless third quarter, Willison put the Bobcats up by three scores again on a 9-yard touchdown run with 11:54 to play in the game.
Trying to keep their season alive, the Bulldogs responded with an 11-play, 60-yard scoring drive. Facing fourth-and-6 inside Thayer's 10, Buckner punctuated the possession by connecting with junior wide receiver Brendon Mealy on a 9-yard touchdown pass with 7:15 remaining.
Martin then picked up a mishandled snap on the extra-point attempt and raced to the right corner of the end zone for a surprise two-point conversion as South Callaway closed within 28-15.
The Bulldogs attempted an onside kick, but Thayer jumped on the ball at the South Callaway 49. Three plays later, Haven broke free to the outside and bolted 50 yards for a touchdown with 5:29 to go.
Bobcats junior linebacker Kyrin Magnuson intercepted a Buckner pass on the Bulldogs' ensuing series, returning it to the South Callaway 34. Four plays later, Willison sealed Thayer's victory on a 4-yard touchdown run with 1:39 left.
The Bobcats got off to a fast start to go on top, building a 16-play, 69-yard drive on the game's first possession that took up almost 7 minutes. Haven squeezed into the end zone from inside the 1 with 5:07 to play in the first quarter.
Haven pushed Thayer's lead to 14-0 on a 26-yard touchdown run with :33.8 remaining in the quarter. He rushed for a game-high 149 yards on 17 carries and completed all nine of his passes for 159 yards.
"He transferred what he looked like on film to the game today," Hess said. "He's just a really good athlete — he's big, he's strong and he's fast, and he's hard to tackle in the open field.
"He'd make one or two guys miss and then he's gone. He reminds me a lot of Peyton Leeper a couple of years ago for us. He's just a really, really good athlete and he makes their offense go."
Senior running back Jordan Madden accounted for the Bobcats' other score on a 3-yard touchdown run with 1:29 remaining in the first half.
Thayer now moves on to a Class 1 semifinal showdown against fourth-ranked Windsor next Saturday, Nov. 28. Windsor advanced with a 40-21 quarterfinal victory over No. 5 Marionville on Saturday.
"(Thayer) is everything they're cracked up to be," Hess said. "A lot of people are saying that they're going to make some noise (for a state title) this year, and I believe that.
"I hope they do. I'm a big Thayer fan now, after we played them. They're good kids, they're well-coached and they play hard."
South Callaway will lose 11 seniors off a team that had to navigate its way through a unique season shadowed by the coronavirus.
"When you look back to last spring when we were all quarantined and we had to do our senior meetings on Zoom, and just how much fun that was to have all those guys and hang out, even if it was over a computer," Hess said. "All the work that they put in over the summer, they showed a lot of leadership and great commitment level.
" They kept it together, they kept fighting and kept practicing hard, and they stayed on top of it. I really appreciate that about them."
Ryan Boland can be reached at (573) 826-2422, or on Twitter @FultonSunSports.