Tigers football opens with 21-13 win vs. Mount Anthony
MIDDLEBURY — Middlebury Union High School football coach Dennis Smith often says a win is a win.
After his Tigers emerged from Friday’s night’s opener on Doc Collins Field with a 21-13 victory in a game with a combined four interceptions and seven fumbles and saw his team have three touchdowns called back due to penalties — but still make a number of big plays — that phrase came to mind.
“I’m very happy just because it was a W. We got a lot of experience. We’ll go back and look at the video on Sunday with the kids,” said Smith, whose program stretched its winning streak to 23 games. “Then, we’ve just got to keep working.”
Seventeen players graduated from 2014’s second straight undefeated team, and even though many of this season’s starters gained valuable experience a year ago, Smith said, they often came in when the games were already decided.
Now, the team’s fate is in their hands.
“All of a sudden it’s coming at them faster than they’re used to,” Smith said. “Now, they’re the ones who’ve got to make the plays.”
He and the Tigers believe they are up to that challenge. On Friday, most of the mistakes came in the first half, after which they trailed, 7-0 — Patriot quarterback Noah Normyle (15-for-34, 252 yards) hit Will Fischer in the right flat on MAU’s second play from scrimmage, and Fischer broke the play for a 57-yard touchdown.
But the Tigers shut out the Patriots for the rest of the half, although the offense sputtered until the second half: The Tigers earned just one first down in the first half, and had two TDs called back due to penalties after a second quarter Jack Hounchell punt return to the Patriot 18.
They did dodge a couple bullets in the half: MAU receiver Damon Burgess dropped a potential TD pass, and following a bad snap on a Tiger punt, MAU missed a 28-yard field goal as the half ended.
Then the Tigers scored two third-quarter TDs, and added another on an interception return by senior linebacker Jerry Niemo in the fourth.
Senior quarterback and safety Oakley Gordon, who struggled throwing at times but set up the Tigers’ second score with a bomb to senior tight end Sawyer Ryan, agreed with Smith it took a while for the Tigers to hit their stride.
“We started out with first-game jitters, I think. I know for me it was tough starting out,” Gordon said. “But the guys fought. We settled in. Once everybody calmed down it started going more smoothly.”
The third quarter was pivotal. The Tigers squandered their first opportunity — senior linebacker Cortland Fischer recovered a fumble at the MAU 17, but Patriot Pat Powers intercepted a pass — but scored the next two times they touched the ball.
The running of senior tailback Ali Abdul-Sater (15 carries, 123 yards) and Fischer at fullback (nine carries, 61 yards) sparked the second-half attack, as the offensive line of junior Patrick Messenger at center, seniors Bruce Wright and Nick Beauchamp at guard, and seniors Wyatt Laberge and Chris Grier at tackle began to get some push.
The Tigers tied the game with a 55-yard drive capped by a 5-yard Fischer run at 6:27. Earlier on the march Fischer bolted for 24 yards.
The Tigers soon moved 55 yards again. The first 54 came when Gordon perfectly found Ryan open deep down the middle, and Abdul-Sater punched it in at 4:59. The second of three Gordon points-after made it 14-7.
The Tiger offense didn’t score again, with another interception killing a drive as the fourth quarter opened, and then another penalty calling back a score midway through the fourth. But the marches killed time: In all, the Tigers rushed for 254 yards on 53 carries.
It was still 14-7 when the Patriots got the ball on their 29 with 2:52 to go. On second down, Niemo, who had sacked Normyle earlier in the quarter, moved into blitz position. But the Tiger coaches yelled, “Jerry, stay out,” and he moved into the flat in time to have Normyle’s pass hit him in the numbers. Niemo raced 35 yards into the end zone at 2:34.
But Normyle was not done. A 29-yard pass to Powers moved MAU to the Tigers 31, and on fourth-and-10 Burgess got behind the defense and made a juggling catch in the right corner of the end zone. The kick failed, and it was 21-13.
That play, and a couple others like it, upset Smith, although he believes the mistakes are correctable.
“All of a sudden the ball is going deep, and I see my kids’ numbers. Their backs are turned to me. So we’re chasing the ball instead of attacking the ball. It’s just getting used to game speed,” he said.
The Patriots tried the onside kick, but the Tigers recovered to effectively end the game.
In all, the Tigers outgained MAU, 329-274, while allowing only 22 rushing yards. Chase Messner also picked off a pass for MUHS, while Gordon finished three of 16 for 75 yards. Burgess caught nine balls for 130 yards for MAU.
Gordon said Smith’s halftime message was to stay calm.
“Coach Smith just basically told us to settle down. We were in a good spot, basically, just down by seven,” Gordon said. “He just talked to us a little bit about defensive rotations, offensive calls, and we just played football.”
He said the Tigers will be confident moving forward.
“I think we bonded well over the preseason. We know each other very, very well. We stay together. We fight hard,” Gordon said. “We’ll just get in this next week, work hard, and play the next game.”
Smith said the Tigers made mistakes, but also “a lot of great plays.” The key to the team, because it lacks the blazing speed of the past two years, will be cutting down on the mistakes and executing more efficiently.
“We’ll get better each and every day,” he said. “We’re better now than when we started this game tonight, and we’ll continue to get better.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].