RUTLAND – The Burr and Burton Academy Bulldogs took the field for the Division II state championship with more than just Bellows Falls lined up against them.
There was baggage stacked up, too.
The Bulldogs’ high-scoring spread attack made them easy to write off as a team with plenty of offense but one that remained suspect on defense. Strong-armed quarterback Griff Stalcup and a stable of receivers led to the notion BBA couldn’t grind out yards when it needed them. And then there was the knock that hurt the most: Burr and Burton, upset as the top seed a year ago, couldn’t win the big one.
Turned out those bags were empty on Saturday — plenty of room to take a trophy home to Manchester.
Forcing three second-half turnovers and holding No. 2 Bellows Falls to just 43 yards of offense after the break, top-seeded Burr and Burton carved out a new identity — state champion — with a 28-7 triumph in the D-II final at Rutland High School.
“We weren’t clicking in the first half … but we just said we don’t have to pass to win,” Stalcup said. “We’re not only a passing offense, we can run the ball too.”
The Bulldogs’ (11-0) second win in a month against the Terriers (9-2) put a bow on the program’s first perfect season with its first football title of the Vermont Principals’ Association era.
It also ended what had been an restless year since a gut-wrenching, 33-26 semifinal defeat to Fair Haven last autumn.
“It just feels good to finally cap it,” said BBA coach Jason Thomas, who took over a program in 2008 that had yet to put together a winning season since rebooting in 1999. “It’s been a long season, a lot of sleepless nights just trying to make sure I do my part to make sure these guys are in the best position to win.”
Stalcup did his part directing the Bulldogs offense against a stingy Bellows Falls defense. The junior finished the day 20-of-31 passing for 192 yards and two touchdowns, added 43 yards on 11 carries and picked off Terriers signal-caller Zac Streeter in the fourth quarter to set up BBA’s final score.
But it was his ability to orchestrate the running game after intermission — read-option decisions, selling successful draw plays with one vicious fake after another — that allowed the likes of senior running backs Ray Gormley, Will Tucker and Kevin Gormley to gouge the Terriers.
“We have all that stuff. There’s always options for us in our run game and our passing game,” Thomas said. “I could call a run and it could end up being a throw. It’s all reads and he makes good decisions.”
Ray Gormley (12 carries, 68 yards) got the Bulldogs on the board midway through the first quarter with a shifty 9-yard run.
And Tucker (10 carries, 61 yards) juked his way in from 8 yards out with 4 minutes, 5 seconds left in the third quarter to nudge his team back in front 14-7.
“It’s certainly something we hadn’t had to deal with a whole lot, you know. They usually want to throw the ball,” Terriers coach Bob Lockerby said. “It obviously made it more difficult for us and it made it easier for them because they were able to get the lead and run the clock — kind of like what we like to do.”
BBA finished with 181 yards on the ground, 150 0f them coming in the final two stanzas.
“The second half we dominated with the run game,” Thomas said. “We ran three running backs, the quarterback, and they pounded it against a very good defense, a traditional run-stuffer and a run-runner.
“That’s what they do and we tried to match their physicality. We felt if we could do that we’d have a shot.”
The game turned for good, however, on the kickoff following Gormley’s touchdown, with the Bulldogs recovering a fumble at the Bellows Falls 41.
After a holding penalty backed up BBA past midfield and into a 3rd-and-28 setting. Stalcup, spotting Sean Apps streaking down the right sideline, lofted a back-shoulder pass that the junior hauled in for a 29-yard reception to extend the drive.
“I saw the corner and then the safety and I thought the safety would cheat in with the post — and he didn’t, he stuck with the wheel to Sean,” Stalcup said. “He made an unbelievable play on the ball.”
Four plays later Stalcup hit Carter Vickers for a 19-yard catch-and-run score and two-touchdown advantage.
The Burr and Burton defense, meanwhile, only got stronger as the game went on.
The Terriers ran just 14 plays from scrimmage in the second half and were held to 158 yards of offense. Running back Jahyde Bullard, who entered the game with 1,000-plus yards on the ground, mustered a team-best 36 yards on 17 carries.
“Our offense has put up a lot of points, gets a lot of credit, but our defense is what’s won us this championship. There’s no question in my mind,” Thomas said. “It started with (Remy Albert), he was outstanding in the middle plugging it up and not allowing them to get extra yards.”
And Bellows Falls’ lone touchdown, tying the game 7-7 with 50.3 seconds left in the first half, almost didn’t happen. Stuffed at the line on 4th-and-goal at the 1, Bullard fumbled backwards only to have Streeter scoop up the ball, dart left and stretch to break the plane.
But that wasn’t going to be enough to sink the Bulldogs on their coronation day.
“This is something that everybody on this team has wanted to do since the first time they put their pads on in second or third grade, you know?” Ray Gormley said. “It’s a great way to end it. I put on my pads in the locker room today and was like, ‘This is it, all-out.’”