Tiger football rolls over St. J, 38-12

MIDDLEBURY — On the past Friday, the No. 2 Middlebury Union High School football team took care of the last preliminary bout, dismissing visiting No. 7 St. Johnsbury, 38-12, in a Division 1 quarterfinal.
The two-time champion Tigers improved to 9-0 and ran the program’s winning streak to 31 games.
But the main events await.
The Tigers did not face the other two D-I powers, No. 3 Hartford and No. 1 Rutland, during the regular season. Unless No. 5 Champlain Valley stuns Rutland this Friday, the path to a third straight title now leads through those two teams, starting with a visit to MUHS from Hartford (7-2, with the only Vermont loss to Rutland) this coming Friday.
Tiger co-captain Chris Grier, an offensive lineman and linebacker, said the Tigers understand what is needed to rise to the challenge.
“We’re going to prepare as hard as we ever have,” Grier said. “It’s going to take Middlebury football. I’m taking it week to week. I’m pretty confident we’re going to play our best.”
Before the Tigers can think about the final, which is scheduled on Rutland’s home field on Nov. 7, Coach Dennis Smith said they have to handle the Hurricanes, who defeated No. 6 Colchester, 20-0, in their quarterfinal.
“I’ve seen a little bit of them on film,” Smith said. “They’re typical Hartford, from what I know. They’re going to run the ball, throw the ball very minimal, even less than we do. They like to be physical. They like to establish the line of scrimmage, offensively and defensively. They like to be aggressive. We’ve just got to execute.”
Hartford will pose more of a challenge than the 4-5 Hilltoppers, although freshman quarterback Jacob Cady kept the Tigers on their toes by completing 14 of 20 passes for 182 yards and two touchdowns, netting 167 yards counting three sacks (two by Brady Larocque).
Fumbles and incomplete passes stalled three of the Tigers’ first four drives. The third resulted in the first of quarterback Oakley Gordon’s three rushing touchdowns, a 2-yard sneak, and the first of his five points-after. It came at 2:26 of the first quarter and gave MUHS a 7-0 lead.
St. J answered in the second quarter. Cady hit running back Ethan Roberts 10 yards downfield on third-and-13. A Tiger defender slipped, and Roberts turned it into a 61-yard touchdown at 9:44.
The Tigers moved the ball again, but stalled at the St. J 31. That was the last time the Tigers failed to score.
Twice in a row in the second quarter, the Tigers stuffed the Hilltoppers on fourth-and-one near midfield, and MUHS marched 54 yards to score. The first march took four plays, the first two 17-yard Ali Abdul-Sater runs, and the last a 7-yard Gordon TD.
Parker Gross capped the second with a 3-yard run with 33 seconds left in the half, just after a 26-yard Gordon completion to Jerry Niemo.
The Tigers dominated possession in the second half: St. J ran just nine plays, one of them Cady’s 53-yard fourth-quarter TD pass to Shane Alercio.
MUHS had time-consuming drives of 75 yards (ending in a 3-yard Gordon TD to open the half), 72 yards (ending in a 16-yard TD pass to Sawyer Ryan) and 54 yards (ending in a Gordon 22-yard field goal).
Making it possible was the Tiger offensive line: Grier and Wyatt Laberge at tackle, co-captain Bruce Wright and Nick Beauchamp at guard, and Patrick Messenger at center.
Smith said once the Tigers adjusted to the Hilltoppers’ pre-snap movement, his line took charge.
“I felt very good about the way they were blocking,” Smith said. “We took control from then on.”
Grier said the line enjoys it when the running game is clicking like it was on Friday.
“It’s nice to see the running backs in front of me after my blocks, I’ll tell you that,” he said. “It makes us feel really accomplished as a lineman.”   
For MUHS Abdul-Sater rushed for 91 yards on seven carries; Gordon had 76 on 17 attempts; Niemo, 68 on 11 carries; Trey Kaufmann, 37 carries on 16, a total suppressed by lost yardage when he and Gordon misconnected on early pitches; Cortland Fischer, 26 on four; and Gross, 21 on five.
In all, the Tigers outgained St. J, 408-204, and held the Hilltoppers to 37 yards rushing. Gordon missed his first six passes, but then completed four of his final five attempts and threw for 89 yards.
“Once he took his time throwing the ball and had the guys open, he started hitting them,” Smith said. “We moved the ball well tonight, so I was very happy.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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