MIDDLEBURY — Saturday’s 5 p.m. Division II high school football final at Castleton State College between No. 1 Middlebury and No. 3 Rice will offer a contrast of styles, according to Tiger coach Dennis Smith.
The 9-1 Green Knights, who avenged their only regular-season setback with a semifinal win at Champlain Valley, and standout quarterback Christian McCormick like to throw the ball, Smith said.
“I would say (Rice’s offense is) probably 90-10, maybe 95-5, pass-to-run,” Smith said.
“They’ve got great athletes at the skill positions, the four receiver positions. Their quarterback is probably the best we’ve faced throwing-wise ... He’s got a heck of an arm, and he’ll thread things in there if you’re not sound defensively.”
Never mind Castleton’s turf surface and the nice weather forecast for this Saturday: Even in the mud this past Saturday at CVU McCormick threw the ball 31 times, completing 15 for 240 yards. Meanwhile, on Friday the Tigers put the ball in the air a typical five times in their semifinal mud-fest at Doc Collins Field against Fair Haven.
Smith said that total might not change too much on Saturday.
“We’re 10-0, and I’m going to do what got us here. Our kids believe in what we’re doing, and I believe in what we’re doing,” he said.
Earlier this week Tigers got some good news on the medical front. Senior quarterback Brendon Burell had to leave the Fair Haven win just before halftime after a blow to the head, but Smith said it looks like Burell, the team’s third-leading rusher as well as a consistent passer and slick ballhandler, will be ready for Rice.
“As of right now, he’s a go. Everything’s checked out, and he’s just knotted up in the neck a little bit,” Smith said. “Concussion-wise, there’s nothing on that issue. It’s just a matter of loosening up his neck.”
Smith said it also looked like all his remaining athletes would remain academically eligible.
“I feel better today than I did Saturday with everything, with the injuries and also grade-wise with some kids,” he said. “We’ve got a full team.”
That status will help when it comes down to slowing McCormick and the Rice receivers. The Green Knights’ spread sets and hurry-up offense mean that Smith wants all hands on deck on defense, especially in looking to generate a little extra pass rush.
“There’s no sense of holding somebody back from playing defense that maybe we had been only running him on offense,” Smith said. “Like (halfback) Bryan Ashley-Selleck, he’s had a bad shoulder all year, but he may do some pass-rushing for us this week. We’ve got to keep our guys fresh because they’re going to be throwing the ball the whole time.”
Combined with a little extra push up front, Smith said he plans to simplify the Tigers’ assignments in the defensive secondary. He believes Fair Haven’s only score last week came after some hesitancy among his defenders when they were asked to disguise multiple looks.
“We’re not going to disguise as much as we did last week,” he said. “I felt at that point instead of being aggressive football players we were being thinkers. And it was taking away from us. I felt in that big drive that they had to score, that was our issue. We were not just playing good sound attacking football like we had been playing. And that’s the key to this week’s game. We’re going to do less, and make sure we do better.”
Defensively, Rice plays with a five-man front and two linebackers, much like the Tigers. They tend to blitz more often, however, and Smith said the Tigers will have to be patient.
“I told the kids we could run the same play two times in a row, and the first time we could lose two yards, and the second time we could gain 20. You’ve got to just catch them, you’ve got to hit the seam,” he said. “You can’t get frustrated because they’re trying to be aggressive against you. You’re going to lose some yards, but we ought to be able to hit some big ones, too.”
Smith noted that McCormick was injured in the third quarter of the Green Knights only loss.
“It should be a hell of a football game,” he said. “They could easily have been undefeated going into this playoff system, too.”
Regardless of Saturday’s outcome, Smith said he will remember this season fondly because he has enjoyed watching 25 Tigers from diverse backgrounds gel into a cohesive team.
“The kids are great. They’ve been wonderful all year,” Smith said. “The kids make the season. I don’t care about the record. They’re a lot of fun to be around.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]