Tigers football blanks Hartford

MIDDLEBURY — On Friday the second-seeded Middlebury Union High School football team overcame a major obstacle to its quest for a third straight Division I championship, defeating No. 3 Hartford, 21-0, despite the early loss to injury of senior quarterback, safety and kicker Oakley Gordon.
In his stead, junior quarterback Andrew Gleason guided a turnover-free offense that took advantage of a long Jack Hounchell punt return and an Ali Abdul-Sater fumble recovery to score touchdowns late in the first and early in the second halves.
And the Tiger defense twice in the first half stopped Hartford inside the Tiger 10,  and then put the clamps on Hartford after the break, allowing just 73 of Hartford’s 230 total yards.
Gleason said the Tiger coaches prepared their team well for Hartford.
“They (Hartford) have tons and tons of formations that they run. And our coaches picked that up,” Gleason said. “We had guys in the right spot on almost every play.”
Coach Dennis Smith said the Tigers followed their assignments defensively (they also committed just two penalties, while Hartford was flagged seven times).
“When you play these guys, everybody has to do their assignment, because they formation you to death, and then they misdirection you,” Smith said.  
Smith also praised the Tigers for their response to the loss of Oakley, who went down on the first series. His knee was iced, and he went to the locker room soon afterward and returned with a crutch; his return this week is extremely unlikely.
“It’s a group of kids that aren’t afraid of anything, and they’re willing to step up. And that’s what I was most proud of tonight,”’ Smith said. “There was no wind out of our sails. It was let’s keep working.”
Gleason said the Tigers felt terrible that their senior leader could not play.
“Oakley’s a great guy, a great quarterback. It was heartbreaking when he went down,” he said.
When Gleason went in, he told himself the Tigers could prevail as a team.
“I was just saying I have faith in my line and faith in my backs that we could get the job done even without Oakley,” he said.
The Tigers stopped the first Hartford threat at their 7-yard line late in the first, but could generate no offense of their own until a sequence late in the second quarter. Backup punter Doug DeLorenzo dropped a 39-yarder on the Hartford 32. Two Hartford penalties backed the Hurricanes up, and they punted from their 11.
Chase Messner fielded the punt and handed the ball to Hounchell, who found daylight in front of the Tiger bench and reached the Hartford 12. On the next play, Gleason scored at 2:18, and DeLorenzo, also the backup place-kicker to Gordon, drilled the first of his three extra points.
 Soon afterward, Hartford’s Walker Judd (he ran 12 times for 118 yards) ripped off a 54-yard run to the Tiger 10. A penalty moved Hartford back to the 15, and the Hurricanes had time for four shots at the end zone. Two of QB Bryce Landon’s passes were off target, and then Hounchell tipped a third-down pass away and on fourth down made a saving tackle just short of the goal line to preserve the Tigers’ 7-0 lead.
The Tigers quickly made it 14-0 after the break. Cortland Fischer forced the fumble that Abdul-Sater pounced on at the Hartford 33. A 13-yard Gleason keeper on third-and-five moved it the 15, and on the next play Gleason hit Brady Larocque on the 3. Then Jerry Niemo punched it in when Gleason had the presence of mind to change the play at the line of scrimmage.
“I had called an inside play,” Smith said. “It’s just game preparation, practice preparation. He saw that they were weak to that side.”
Niemo added a 14-yard run in the game’s last minute for the final score.
The Tigers sacked Landon three times in the second half for 21 yards, with Larocque (twice) and Bruce Wright doing the honors, and Abdul-Sater picked him off. Landon finished five-of-20 for 63 yards, and Gavin Farnsworth tossed two incompletions.
For the Tigers, Fischer (10 carries, 53 yards), Niemo (11 carries, 40 yards), Abdul-Sater (8 carries, 37 yards) and Gleason (8 carries, 36 yards) led the attack behind the offensive line of Wright, Chris Grier, Pat Messenger, Nick Beauchamp and Wyatt Laberge. The Hurricanes outgained the Tigers, 230-176, but hurt themselves with the penalties and turnovers.
Gleason said Tigers will need more “Middlebury football” — he described it as “running hard, hitting hard, tackling hard, playing good football, fundamental football” — to defeat No. 1 Rutland on its home turf at 5 p.m. this coming Saturday.
“Whoever makes the least amount of mistakes I think is going to win that game,” he said.
Smith said some offensive possession to keep the ball away from the high-powered Raiders would help, and it will take solid defense.
“They’ll try to zone-option on the inside stuff with the back and the quarterback, and then they’re going to try to run play-action out of that and hit their receivers,” he said. “So we’ve got to slow them down is what it comes down to, because they’re been really moving the ball on every team in the state this year.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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