Tiger football can’t overcome slow start vs. Essex

TIGERS CAMERON STONE, left, and Penn Riney team up to bring down Essex running back Tanner Robbins during Friday night’s game at MUHS. Robbins ran for 131 yards in the Hornets’ victory. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — The trouble for the Middlebury Union High School football team began with the opening kickoff vs. visiting Essex on Friday evening.

TIGER LINEBACKER ANGUS Blackwell gains an advantage rushing the passer on an Essex lineman during Friday night’s home game, won by the visiting Hornets.
Independent photo/Steve James

Hornet kicker Charlie Bowen boomed the ball over the head of the Tiger returners, who figured it would bounce into the endzone. But the ball rolled to a stop at the MUHS 2-yard line, where a Hornet cover man downed it to possess it for his team; after all, it had gone more the 40 yards further than the required 10.

All alone, the Hornet could easily have picked the ball up and waltzed in for six points.

No matter. Essex back Tanner Robbins busted into the endzone on the next play. Bowen added the extra point, and the Hornets led, 7-0, with just five ticks of the clock gone.

Things never got much better for the home team. When the final horn sounded — after the Tigers committed seven penalties, half of which stalled promising drives, and threw three interceptions — Essex had prevailed, 31-7.

The defending Division I champion Hornets improved to 3-2 with their third straight win. And the pivotal setback dropped the Tigers to 2-3 and ended their two-game winning streak. Essex moved up to third place in the D-I standings; the Tigers dropped to seventh.

The Tigers now must hit the road for the remainder of their schedule, with games at Hartford this Friday, and then Burlington/South Burlington and first-place Burr & Burton.

The Tigers did move the ball on the ground, averaging more than five yards a carry in gaining 236 yards on 44 attempts.

But quarterback Jacob Kemp (one for five for 13 yards, three interceptions while under heavy pressure), and Jackson Gillett (0 for 1 on an option pass) combined to net minus-six yards through the air when three Hornet sacks for 19 yards were figured in.

And then there were the penalties — holds, illegal blocks and illegal motions included — that also stalled drives, as Coach Dennis Smith noted afterward.

TIGER CORNERBACK GEORGE Devlin (No. 21) and safety Jackson Gillett (No. 3) move in on Essex receiver Joshua Brown after a reception during Friday night’s game at MUHS, won by the visiting Hornets.
Independent photo/Steve James

“Every time we got the ball moving we got a hold, or this or that, you know, or we’d throw an interception. Offensively we just sputtered,” Smith said.

Meanwhile, Essex picked up 196 yards on 34 carries, with Robbins (22 carries, 131 yards) doing the lion’s share of the damage on the ground. Bowen, the QB, hit on five of 14 passes for another 103 yards, including a backbreaking 54-yarder to Joshua Brown that made it 24-0 in the third quarter. Brown broke two tackles downfield on that play.

TIGER SAFETY JACKSON Gillett helps drag down Essex running back Tanner Robbins during Friday night’s game at MUHS. Visiting Essex defeated the Tigers, 31-7.
Independent photo/Steve James

“Defensively, we had some good moments, and also they’re tough,” Smith said. “We’ve got to wrap up. It’s all those little fundamental things we just didn’t do this week.”

For example, the Tigers picked up a block-in-the-back penalty when they returned the Hornets’ second kickoff. Despite starting on their own 5, they picked up three first downs and reached the Essex 46. Then a missed block on first down made it second and 13, and an interception on third down ended the march.

On their second drive they reached the Essex 34 with a fourth and 1, and drew an illegal motion penalty and had to punt. The next drive ended in an interception, and the drive after that with two penalties.

Meanwhile, Bowen kicked a 32-yard field goal at 6:55 of the second quarter after a key defensive play by Cam Stone helped halt a march at the Tiger 15. But the Hornets came back on their next possession and moved 78 yards to make it 17-0 at the half.

Robbins broke a 37-yard run from the Tiger 30 and then caught an 18-yard pass from Bowen to put the Hornets on the Tiger 15. Eventually he lugged the ball in from the 4 with 41 seconds to go in the half.

After stopping the Hornets on their first possession of the second half, largely thanks to Angus Blackwell tackling Robbins for a 4-yard loss, the Tigers had a chance to get back in the game. But they came up a yard short on fourth-and-two at the Essex 40.

Four plays later Bowen hit Brown for the 54-yard score on second-and-26, and it was clearly not going to be the Tigers’ night, even though Kemp picked off Bowen on the next Hornet drive.

TIGER QB JACOB Kemp finds running room in the Essex secondary on this play during Friday’s night’s game at MUHS, but the visiting Hornets cruised to the win.
Independent photo/Steve James

In the fourth quarter, the Hornets took advantage of a short field after a bad snap on a Tiger punt to score on a 7-yard Bowen run. The Tiger second string pushed for a late score on the Hornet second string, with Avery Carl, Cole Warren and QB Luke Nuceder running well. Carl finished off the drive with a 15-yard run with 2:17 to go.

For MUHS, Gavin McNulty led the way with nine carries for 56 yards, followed by Stone (seven for 49), Carl (four for 44), Cole Schnoor (nine for 30), Gillett (six for 30) and Kemp (four for 25).

Coach Smith credited the Hornets for their physical play. Still, he had believed the Tigers were “on the upswing” after their wins over St. Albans and Rutland the previous two weeks, but “took a step back” on Friday.

His message to the team was better preparation and focus is required with Hartford looming on Friday.

“We’ve got to be ready to play football every week, and we’re right back to where we were weeks one and two, which is right back to making all those foolish mistakes,” Smith said. “I thought we were turning the corner, but we’re right back there. So, you know, we’ve just got to buckle our belts and get back to work this week.”

MUHS DEFENSIVE LINEMAN Matt Brown plugs one hole as Essex back Tanner Robbins lugs the football during the Tigers’ Friday night home game. Visiting Essex prevailed.
Independent photo/Steve James

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