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Tiger football bests the Hornets, 34-27

MIDDLEBURY — It got uncomfortable at the end, but the Middlebury Union High School football team defeated visiting Division I rival Essex on Friday, 34-27, to improve to 6-0 this fall and move the program’s winning streak to 28 games.
The Tigers led by 34-14 with 4:12 to go, but the Hornets used an interception and an onside kick recovery to create some late suspense before Tiger senior Chase Messner intercepted Essex quarterback Eli DiGrande as time expired.
“We thought we had it put away, and they just kept fighting,” said MUHS coach Dennis Smith. “That’s a great team, Essex, they just keep working. They were right there at the end, and it was a little closer than I liked it.”
Essex has been competitive all season, but dropped to 1-5. The Hornets also scored on their first possession to take a 7-0 lead at 6:35 of the first quarter, marching 58 yards on eight running plays. Liam Coulter, who led the Hornets with 17 carries for 71 yards, capped the drive with an 11-yard burst.
MIDDLEBURY UNION HIGH School senior quarterback Oakley Gordon cuts up between two falling Essex defenders Friday night in Middlebury. The Tigers won the game, 34-27. Below, Tiger senior Sawyer Ryan pulls in a pass and turns up the field to score on an 86-yard touchdown play Friday against Essex.
Independent photos/Trent Campbell
The Tigers, meanwhile, were on the verge of going nowhere on their second possession after punting into a strong north wind in their first drive. A penalty on the kick return put them on their 9-yard line, and they faced third-and-6.
Then came a key play in the game. The Tigers faked a run, and quarterback Oakley Gordon found tight end Ryan Sawyer crossing the field behind the Essex secondary. Sawyer took the ball in stride and outraced the Hornets down the right sideline for an 87-yard touchdown. The first of four Gordon points-after made it 7-7.
Smith said just not punting into the wind from the end zone was critical, and instead the score was tied.
“We were in a big hole, and not only a hole, but the wind was in our face,” he said.
After that opening drive, the Tigers also allowed the Hornets only one more first down until the fourth quarter.
“Defensively, we had to make some adjustments, but once we settled in I thought we did pretty well,” Smith said.
In the second quarter, the Tigers moved 62 yards to make it 14-7, a score that stood at the half. The Tigers were fortunate, as Nick Coe and Parker Gross recovered fumbles on the march. Big plays were a 13-yard completion to Messner for a first-down at midfield and a 24-yard Trey Kaufmann run to the Essex 14. Four plays later, Jerry Niemo punched it in from the 1.
The Tigers dominated the third quarter, scoring twice. The first came at 3:04 on a 3-yard Kaufmann run set up by two big pass plays, one a 40-yarder to Ryan from Hornet territory — Smith noted play-action passes were effective vs. the Hornet defense — and the other a 17-yard sideline toss to Gross out of the backfield on fourth-and-12 from the Essex 35.
The second came after a Hornet punt: Niemo broke a 61-yard run in the quarter’s final minute.
Held to seven points through three quarters, Essex scored 20 in the fourth. Smith said it was a combination of the Hornets refusal to quit and the Tigers’ personnel and approach.
“We started subbing some guys, and they just made some big plays,” Smith said. “And we just got kind of lackadaisical.”
DiGrande (eight carries for 65 yards) also began to run more effectively during a 51-yard march to open the fourth quarter that ended with Elliot Boutin scoring on fourth-and-goal from the Tiger 2 at 6:19. Gordon blocked the extra point, and it was 28-13.
Gordon then returned the kickoff about 60 yards to the Essex 26. Four plays later Gross broke several tackles to score on an 18-yard run on fourth-and-two to make it 34-14 at 4:12.
Next, Essex marched 60 yards in seven plays — including a 33-yard DiGrande run and his first two completed passes of the night, both to tight end Colby Trudeau — to score again, this time on 3-yard Boutin run at 1:55.
When Liam Smith recovered the Essex onside kick, the game looked over. But Nick Fagnant intercepted Gordon and raced 35 yards to the Tiger 23. A 17-yard screen pass moved the ball to the 5, and from there DiGrande hit Trudeau in the end zone, and it was 34-27. DiGrande finished four-for-10 passing for 40 yards.
And this time, Boutin recovered the onside kick for Essex this time at midfield. With 12.4 seconds to go, time was left for a couple plays.
But the Tigers deflected DiGrande’s downfield pass. Messner snared the ball before it hit the turf, ran a few steps and took a knee as time expired.
In all, the Tigers outgained the Hornets, 358-231. Niemo led the rushers with 68 yards in three attempts, followed by Kaufmann, 50 yards on 11 carries, and Gross, 45 yards on 11 rushes. Gordon completed five of 11 attempts for 157 yards.
Smith found things to like afterward.
“It seems like as the season’s gone on we’re executing better offensively and we are getting the big plays,” he said. “Certain guys are stepping up and taking the roles of the guys who left from last year.”
Still, he would like to see some other players improve to provide more depth, and mentioned the interior running game didn’t function as well as he would have liked on Friday.
“I’m happy. We’re 6-0. We’re getting better,” he said. “We’ve still got room for improvement.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent.com.

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