Tiger football falls just short vs. Ravens

MIDDLEBURY — A missed assignment as time wound down. Untimely penalties and a call that Coach Dennis Smith questioned. Kicks that sailed just wide or hit an upright. And a miraculous 44-yard Rutland touchdown catch on a ball that bounced off one receiver and into the hands of another.

All of that went wrong for the 3-2 Middlebury Union High School football team this past Friday, and conversely all went right for visiting Rutland (5-0), which had to feel fortunate to leave town with a 21-18 victory and its perfect record intact.

The Ravens scored the decisive touchdown with 1:14 left in the game on a fourth-and-11 play from the Tiger 19. Rutland QB Trey Davine stood up to heavy pressure and found fullback Ben Parker circling out to the left flat. Parker caught Davine’s pass and outraced two defenders to the left corner flag. A two-point conversion made it 21-18.

The score capped a 58-yard drive in which the Ravens overcame a fumbled snap and another snap that sailed over Davine’s head, after which he managed to toss an incomplete pass.

He then hit Ryan Boulger for seven yards on fourth-and-four on the next play, and set up the Ravens on the 19 with a 16-yard strike to Jack Coughlin on the following play.

The Tiger defense played well. MUHS limited Rutland to 65 yards rushing on 21 rushing attempts, and Davine completed 12 of 21 passes for 167 yards.

MUHS took a 17-13 lead with 3:54 to play by marching 61 yards in 13 plays, a drive capped by Gavin McNulty’s three-yard burst over the right side.

Nikolai Lukcsh, Nick Austin-Neil and McNulty all ran well on the march, and QB Jackson Gillett completed a 12-yard pass to tight end Penn Riney on third-and-10 to set up the Tigers on the Rutland 3.

“It was a great game. Both teams made big plays, and both teams made foolish plays,” Coach Smith said. “But in the end, they caught us on that last one there. We were coming after them, and my end forgot to pick up the fullback on the swing. So it was just the emotions of the kid, and it was a good call on their part.”

The Tigers started strong, marching 56 yards with their opening possession and scoring on an Austin-Neil five-yard run. But as a harbinger of things to come, the normally reliable Luksch missed the point-after kick wide right.

The Tigers made it 12-0 at 8:48 of the second quarter. Their second possession stalled out, but McNulty recovered a Rutland fumble of Luksch’s punt to set them up on the Raven 35. With help from a Raven personal foul, the Tigers punched it in again, with Austin-Neil doing the honors from six yards out. This time the kick hit the upright, and it was 12-0.

Rutland answered as Davine began to find the range, completing four passes in a 65-yard march capped by his 11-yard toss to Slade Postemski, and it was 12-7.

Then things went awry for MUHS. Brilliant catches by McNulty and Luksch seemingly moved the ball inside the Rutland 20. But the Tigers were flagged for a lineman downfield that wiped out the second catch. Smith disputed that infraction, which preceded two more penalties and Rutland’s taking over and scoring before the break.

Smith said video showed his lineman was within the legal three-yard downfield limit when Gillett tossed the ball to Luksch.

“We should have scored instead of them scoring,” Smith said. “We had the ball down there, and I looked at the film here, and he didn’t throw the flag until he turned around, and by that time my lineman was five yards downfield. And when he threw the ball he was only two-and-a-half, three. That’s a big momentum swing right there.”

Instead, Rutland took over at its 38, and eventually Davine rolled right and heaved a 44-yard toss into the end zone that Postemski bobbled. The ball popped into the air as Postemski fell and into Coughlin’s arms as time expired, and it was 13-12 Rutland.

The Tigers had a chance to take the lead in the third when Riney recovered a dropped backwards Davine pass at the Rutland 20, but Luksch’s 35-yard field goal try sailed inches wide.

Overall, the Tigers moved the ball effectively, rushing 45 times for 191 yards. Austin-Neil led the way with 16 carries for 77 yards, and McNulty (11 for 43), Brian Whitley (five for 28), Gillett (nine for 24), and Luksch (four for 19) all contributed.

The Tigers, who visit Champlain Valley (4-1) on Saturday at 1 p.m., picked up 13 first downs to eight for the Ravens, while Gillett completed three of nine passes for 31 yards — stats dampened by four desperation heaves in the final minute.

Certainly, Smith said there is no reason to believe his team won’t remain in the D-I title hunt.

“My kids played a hell of a game,” Smith said. “We made some big mistakes, but we also made some big plays, too. We’re coming along. We still haven’t reached our top, I feel. We can play with anybody. We’ve just got to cut down on foolishness.”

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