The Middlebury Tigers won their first 10 games by staying in the present, approaching each game like the one before it. The future grew irrelevant with a staggeringly consistent defense and triple-option rushing attack.
“One week at a time was really all we cared about,” Middlebury senior lineman Sam Usilton said. “If next week had a big game, we didn’t even care — shut it all out, put the blinders on, get down to business for that week.”
The ultimate payoff came on Saturday night.
It was business as usual.
Trailing by a touchdown after the first quarter, junior quarterback Austin Robinson and the top-seeded Tigers parlayed three South Burlington turnovers into touchdowns over the next quarter and a half to pull away for a 26-6 victory in the Division I high school football championship game at Rutland High School.
“With the great season we had and the group of kids we had, there was only one way we wanted to finish it off,” said Robinson, who sparkled against the Rebels.
Robinson piled up 145 yards on 20 carries, rushing for three scores and passing for another as the Tigers secured their first crown since 2002 with the program’s first perfect 11-0 campaign since 1995.
“It’ll settle in some day. Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day,” Tigers coach Dennis Smith said. “What I want to do is go back and look at film of this year because I don’t think you really enjoy it as much as the fans do because you’re always pushing to be better and better and don’t realize how good our team actually was this year.
“It was a heck of a team, a heck of group of kids that worked hard, never got down on each other no matter the situation — even tonight when you’re down 6-0.”
That deficit, which nearly doubled Middlebury’s time spent playing from behind this season, lasted for all of 4 minutes, 5 seconds.
Robinson erased it early in the second quarter when he cruised into the end zone untouched for a 55-yard jaunt one play after the Tigers recovered a Rebel fumble.
“They’re a good team. They’ve got a lot of weapons and we knew going into it that it was going to be a tough one,” Rebels coach Joe McDonald said. “Obviously we played them before and had a lot of turnovers the first time playing them. We knew we couldn’t make any mistakes.
“Losing our tailback didn’t help.”
And that was the nightmare start that South Burlington (9-2) never could have imagined.
Standout back Tanner Contois, who entered the game with more than 2,200 yards rushing, came up injured on the first play and, after fighting through two more carries, didn’t return to the field after the first series.
But the Rebels seized the early lead without Contois as quarterback Hunter Riehle (21-of-32, 178 yards) directed an eight-play, 57-yard drive. He capped the series by hitting Jeremy Clements on a slant for an 11-yard score.
“I felt it was a slugfest early on and we had some adjusting we had to do offensively,” Smith said. “Defensively they had us on our heels at first.”
Middlebury doubled up the Rebels with a crisp 2-minute drill after Bobby Ritter picked off Riehle at the South Burlington 47. Ripping off nine plays in less than 1:55, Robinson found Cullen Hathaway wide open in the left flat for a 2-yard score and 13-6 halftime lead.
The Tigers extended the lead with 7:12 left in the third quarter after South Burlington fumbled inside its own 20 and Robinson gashed through the right side for a 7-yard TD. He added another, a 12-yarder, early in the fourth quarter to set the final score.
Cam Nolting finished with seven catches for 61 yards to lead the Rebels’ receiving corps. Max Smith hauled in five passes.
Senior fullback Jakob Trautwein ground out 96 yards on 19 carries. Eight Middlebury ballcarriers amassed 346 yards — one last balanced night for the Tigers, who finished the year allowing an average of just 6.4 points per game.
“The seniors here, when we were freshman, our first game was at Rutland. Kind of fitting that our last game was here at Rutland,” Usilton said. “It’s unbelievable, I don’t know what to say.”