Steamrolling their way to a pair of unbeaten championships the past two seasons, the Middlebury Tigers were dominant enough to inspire grumbling within their own fanbase.
“Last year, everybody was complaining you had to be there when the game started because by halftime it was over,” said coach Dennis Smith.
This fall, after graduating several central figures from the title-winning squads, Middlebury’s early blowouts have given way to more sustained drama. That unpredictability has, in turn, led to new criticism: Fans have had to stay until the very end.
“Of course you can’t please everybody,” Smith said with a laugh.
Maybe the Tigers get a pass this week.
Regardless of the close shaves, without the flash of the last two autumns and, most recently, despite a season-ending injury to starting quarterback Oakley Gordon, second-seeded Middlebury finds itself in the Division I state final once again, squaring off with No. 1 Rutland at 5 p.m. Saturday on the Raiders’ home turf.
“This team has just gotten better as the year’s gone on,” Smith said. “Not as athletic, not as skilled, but everybody here has a job and they’re all contributing. There’s not one star, there’s not two or three kids running the ball for 150 yards a game. There’s six guys, seven guys, different guys every game that are making things happen.”
Is a third straight crown in the cards for the 10-0 Tigers? Can they tack a 33rd consecutive win onto their remarkable streak?
That’s down to acing perhaps the biggest test — the often-explosive Raiders — of the entire three-year run.
“We’re not worried about 32 or 33 (wins). It’s 1-0 this week,” Smith said. “And, you know, we’ve still got a chance to be 1-0 this week. If you’re sitting at home not playing you don’t have that chance. We’re just excited to be back here.”
Gordon’s absence will be felt on several levels — the senior was the quarterback, leader of the defensive backfield, the punter and the kicker. But Andrew Gleason, his replacement under center, grew into the role over the course of last Friday’s 21-0 semifinal win over Hartford.
Gleason, a junior, audibled for one touchdown, yielded zero turnovers and got essentially an entire game under his belt after Gordon went down late in the Tigers’ opening drive.
“The nice thing is he’s had that game, that experience,” Smith said. “We know what he can do and he knows what he can do now. It’s not all of a sudden just getting thrown into the fire this coming Saturday.”
Rutland (9-1), another traditional football power, returns to the final for the third time since winning the 2006 title.
And the Raiders arrive vastly improved from last year’s 5-4 campaign, when they installed the read-option based offense in which quarterback Andy Kenosh and running back Caleb White have shined this season.
“We try to play physical but spread the ball around and utilize the athletes that we have,” said Mike Norman, who’s coached Rutland to seven championships in 22 years. “Every coach, coaching staff, has their own ideas how to utilize their personnel and that’s what we did.
“But we wouldn’t be able to do it without all of the kids. They’ve really bought in, worked hard and they’re reaping the rewards of their hard work.”
Kenosh has pulled the strings for 33 total touchdowns (22 passing) and thrown for more than 1,700 yards while White has racked up nearly 1,200 yards and 17 TDs on the ground, according to the Rutland Herald.
“They have by far the most sophisticated offense we’re going to play against this entire season,” said Middlebury senior Nick Beauchamp. “Their quarterback is really a great athlete, their linemen are also on point.”
Added senior Jack Hounchell, who provided a pair of touchdown-saving tackles and a pivotal punt return last week against Hartford: “They’ve got great running backs, great receivers. With that combination, they have a great offense.”
The Raiders, whose only loss came against Plymouth, New Hampshire, enter the championship averaging 37.8 points per game. But it’s their balance, as much as the scheme, that makes them so formidable, according to Smith.
“The hardest thing to defend in my eyes is option-type football. That’s why we do it,” Smith said. “It’s the same thing with Rutland. It’s not the true option like we’re running but it is a zone-type option and there’s two different things that could happen — and he could fake it, look like he’s going to run, and then throw the ball. It is deceiving.”
The two-time defending champions have been consistent in their own right, putting up 29.9 points and allowing just 10 per game.
Fullback Cortland Fischer leads the multi-back ground attack with 622 yards on 102 carries. Trey Kaufmann (eight TDs) and Ali Abdul-Sater (two TDs) are both over 500 yards rushing as well.
Save for one mid-season escape against Colchester, the Tigers’ armor has shown few cracks and they have, as before, managed to pounce on chances they’re given.
“We’ve played them, I bet, close to 35 times since I’ve been here,” Norman said. “They do a great job of not beating themselves and if you make a mistake, they do a great job of taking advantage of them. You have to fight fire with fire — you have to be sound as well.”