Tiger football opens with promising victory over Essex

MIDDLEBURY — The 2013 season couldn’t have started much better for the Middlebury Union High School football team this past Friday night.
In the Tigers’ home and season opener vs. Essex, they scored touchdowns on four of their first five possessions, held the Hornets to nine first downs, outgained Essex in total yards gained by 349-183, looked crisp in their new no-huddle offense, got solid play from a rebuilt offensive line, and coasted to a 35-7 victory.
“It was great,” said senior captain and running back Nick Felkl. “We came out and executed.”
The Hornets appeared to be keying on Felkl, the Tigers’ leading rusher a year ago, but had no answer for senior fullback Jake Trautwein, whose 10 inside carries for 39 yards set the tone; junior tailback Cullen Hathaway, who carried five times for 33 yards and a touchdown and caught a 25-yard TD pass; and junior quarterback Austin Robinson, who ran seven times for 126 yards and two touchdowns and completed three of six passes for 64 yards.
“Austin, he can do it all,” Felkl said. “He’s a great player, and we look to feed off him.”
Coach Dennis Smith praised his rebuilt offensive line. Only senior center Samuel Messenger returns. Senior guard Josh Stearns and senior tackle Sam Usilton are converted tight ends, and senior tackle Holden Yildirim and junior tackle James Ploof are new starters.
Smith was especially pleased with how the group picked up on the Hornets’ several different defensive looks.
“They did a great job,” he said. “They’re communicating well, and I only see us getting better up there.”
The no-huddle look also worked effectively. Felkl said the Tigers have picked it up quickly.
“We introduced it the very first day of preseason, and we’ve been repping it ever since,” he said. “And it came together pretty good. Everybody’s pretty smart, and we got it.”
Smith and his staff hope the no-huddle will be the offense to help the team maintain its rhythm, prevent defenses from substituting, and wear opponents down.
“I felt it worked very well. The kids were getting the play, we were getting on the ball, and we were moving. There’s still more we’ve got to do with it, but I think we’re in good shape,” he said.
The defense also looked solid. Essex showed flashes, notably the running of QB Brendon Gleason (15 carries, 57 yards) and back Joey Robertson (12 carries, 56 yards).
But the Tigers also tackled Hornets for losses nine times, making it difficult for the Hornets to maintain drives, especially with their reluctance to throw in the first half.
“We just had to make our reads, listen to coach,” Felkl said. “We prepared a little more for the pass, and they came out running, so we just had to adjust.”
After the Hornets’ first drive fizzled, Hathaway returned a punt 31 yards to the Hornet 36. Four Trautwein runs netted a first down, and a nine-yard Robinson run on fourth-and-five gave the Tigers another. Eventually Robinson strolled in from the two at 3:51. A high snap ruined Stearns’ point-after kick.
Essex again managed just one first down, but a big punt put the Tigers at their 10. Gains by Felkl and Sam Smith helped move the ball to the 33. There, Robinson faked to Trautwein, pulled the ball back and raced 67 yards untouched down the left sideline to make it 12-0. Robinson then hit junior Bobby Ritter for the two-point conversion at 11:15 of the second.
The Hornets then stalled at midfield, in part because safety Nathan Peck tackled Philip Wilson for a six-yard loss. The Tigers took over on their 20, and Robinson immediately hit Felkl for 28 yards to trigger a five-play scoring drive. Robinson ran for 25 yards, and Hathaway covered the final 25 yards in two plays, including an 11-yard score at 4:24. Stearns kicked the first of three straight points-after, and it was 21-0.
The Tigers took the opening kickoff of the second half 76 yards in 13 plays to make it 28-0. Robinson runs on third and fourth downs kept the drive alive, and he also threw to Trautwein to move the markers. At 5:51 of the third, Robinson found Hathaway alone behind the defense from 25 yards out, and it was 28-0.
Two possessions later, the Hornets recovered a Tiger fumble at the MUHS 35, and Gleason hit Cody Greenewith a 29-yard pass on third and 17 to move the ball to the 13. But the Hornets soon faced fourth and three from the six, and Gleason threw the ball up for grabs. Robinson snared it at the five and romped 95 yards for the final MUHS score at 0:43 of the third.
Essex scored at 8:16 of the fourth with Robertson at QB. He completed three straight passes, including a 17-yard slant to Greene for the TD. Robertson went three-for-four for 37 yards, while Gleason was five-for-eight for 33 yards.
The Tigers have little time to enjoy the victory: Three-time defending Division I champion Hartford visits Doc Collins Field at 7 p.m. this Friday.
Hartford graduated a number of players from its 2012 powerhouse, but Smith expects little drop-off for the Hurricanes’ quality of play, and said the Tigers will have little margin of error.
“We’ve just got to take care of our situation. We can’t turn the ball over against them. We’ve got to play tough defense, not give up the big play,” he said. “It’s a new group for them, (but) they’ve got some tough kids.”
Felkl said the Tigers are excited about the early-season challenge.
“It’s a huge game, a great opportunity,” he said. “We just have to come out, low mistakes, and play Middlebury football.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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