Surging Tiger football runs past Hornets; D-I semifinal next
ESSEX — The Middlebury Union High School football team appears to have saved its best for last.
A week after the Tigers upset second-place Champlain Valley to earn the No. 5 seed for the Division I playoffs, they dominated No. 4 Essex this past Friday for most of a quarterfinal matchup and avenged a 17-0 loss on the same field three weeks before with a 17-14 victory.
The 6-3 Tigers will visit No. 1 Hartford (8-1, 8-0 in D-I) on Friday at 7 p.m. The teams did not meet in the regular season. The final will be played on Nov. 12 at Rutland High School at a time to be announced.
In some respects, this past Friday’s game was not as close as the score: The Tigers outgained the 6-3 Hornets, 290-102; allowed them only five first downs, one in the first half as they took a 17-14 lead; did not turn the ball over and recovered an Essex fumble; and controlled the clock by gaining 286 yards in 63 rushing attempts.
Senior fullback Spencer Carpenter, who rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown on 21 carries, said “a lot of things” went into the Tigers turning things around after a disappointing home loss to Rice on Oct. 14.
Carpenter cited improved focus and a rededication to the team’s inside running game.
“We just tried not to hang our heads. We picked ourselves back up. We got back to the fundamentals, made sure we were getting our blocks straight and not hurting our offense with turnovers,” Carpenter said. “And just doing the basics.”
Coach Dennis Smith had a similar take after a game in which quarterback Andrew Gleason threw just one pass, a four-yard completion to Trey Kaufmann that set up what proved to be a critical 25-yard Doug DeLorenzo field goal.
“It was everything. It’s been a team-wide focus, and it’s been a coaches’ focus,” Smith said. “Let’s get back to basics and do some things and get good at those things before we worry about anything else.”
Mistakes such as turnovers, untimely penalties and missed blocks hurt the Tigers in each of their losses, Smith said, and a team-wide dedication to the ball-control approach of the past two weeks has helped spark the turnaround.
“We could be 8-0. We’re just too many turnovers away from being in that situation. But it wasn’t just the backs. It wasn’t the quarterback. I had the linemen check themselves out, too, and say, ‘We’re missing blocks. We’re not doing our part, either,’” Smith said. “And right now I’ve got more guys doing that.”
The Tigers moved the ball into Essex territory on their opening drive but had to punt, putting the Hornets on their 17. Essex got its only first down of the half, but tackles for losses by Tigers Maverick Payne and Skeyeler Devlin forced a punt that gave the Tigers good field position on their own 47.
From there, they moved to score in 11 plays that chewed up more than five minutes. The big plays were a 16-yard run by Paul Deering to open the march, a 10-yard Carpenter burst up the middle on fourth-and-two from the Essex 30, and a six-yard Kaufmann run on third-and-four from the 16. Deering scored from the 1 on third down at 0:53 of the first, and DeLorenzo made it 7-0.
Then came the Tigers’ only mistake of the half: Hornet Jordan Hines returned the ensuing kickoff 85 yards to tie the score at 0:41.
The Tigers didn’t blink. They drove 80 yards in 17 plays to take a 14-7 lead at 4:43. Carpenter ran for eight yards on third-and-five, Deering went for four on fourth-and-two from the Essex 32, and Carpenter converted another fourth-and-two at the 21 by bulling for seven yards.
Soon afterward the Tigers shrugged off one of their three penalties, which moved them back to the 23, with a 10-yard run by Fischer to set up Carpenter’s 13-yard TD off the left side that made it 14-7.
The teams then exchanged punts, and Essex fumbled the Tiger punt. Gleason recovered at the Essex 24 with 57.5 seconds left in the half. A Fischer run for nine yards and Gleason’s toss to Kauffman helped move the ball to the Essex nine to set up DeLorenzo’s kick from the 25, and he split the uprights to make it 17-7.
Essex fought back with the opening drive of the second half, moving 55 yards to make it 17-14. Fullback Liam Counter, a major factor in the Hornets’ earlier win, returned to the attack after playing only defense in the first half due to a leg injury. He, Hines and quarterback Otis Crock combined to rush for all the yards on the march, capped by a Hines counter to the left for a 19-yard score at 6:51.
But although the Tigers didn’t score again, they moved the ball well enough to limit the Essex chances. The Hornets went three-and-out to end the third quarter and in their first possession of the fourth quarter. The Hornets had one last chance in the fourth, getting the ball back at their 31 with 5:39 to go.
Four runs by Hines gave them a first down at their 47, but a holding call gave them a first-and-18 at their 39. A pass to Hines gained just two yards, and another pass to Hines lost three yards on a big hit by Fischer. A heavy rush from Devlin and DeLorenzo forced an incompletion on third down, and a dropped pass in the flat on fourth-and-18 ended the Hornets’ chances.
Hines led Essex with 16 carries for 16 yards. The Hornets completed two of seven passes and lost a yard through the air.
For the Tigers, Kaufmann (15 carries, 64 yards), Fischer (11 for 47), Deering (six for 26) and Gleason (nine for 36) all found room to move behind an offensive line that allowed only one Tiger back to be tackled for a loss.
Smith said the Tigers executed well.
“This week we had a great game plan, I felt. We pounded the ball inside, with just a little bit on the edges,” he said. “And, you know, we would like to throw the ball, but if we can play a tight game and stay in it, we feel very comfortable right now.”
Smith said a switch to a full platoon of offensive and defensive lines has helped keep the linemen fresh, while Carpenter said the coaches have also prepared the Tigers well defensively in the past few weeks.
“We just make sure to go through all their plays, and we just know where to be,” he said.
In all, Smith had reason to smile on Friday.
“We just beat a team that beat us 17-0 the first time and totally dominated the first half,” Smith said. “It was a dogfight in the second half, but the guys stood tough and answered the call tonight.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].