MIDDLEBURY – It looked like an inconsequential run, stuffed near the line of scrimmage. But then Middlebury’s starting quarterback was dragged down awkwardly. And then Oakley Gordon, also the Tigers’ punter, kicker and defensive back, didn’t get up.
Suffice it to say, six plays into the Division I semifinal matchup against Hartford, the big pregame question — could the Tigers beat Hartford? — had been replaced.
Could the two-time defending Division I champions score against the Hurricanes?
Down goes Mr. Everything, in comes junior Andrew Gleason and — in typically opportunistic fashion — Middlebury had its answer.
With Gleason at the helm and the defense on high alert, the second-seeded Tigers pounced for game-breaking plays where they could to post a 21-0 victory over No. 2 Hartford in high school football Friday night.
And with the shutout, Middlebury’s second straight in the semifinals, comes the ultimate prize: A chance to make it three titles in a row in next Saturday’s state championship game against No. 1 Rutland.
“I’ve been, all year long, telling these kids that your time could be any time and you’ve got to be ready to step up,” Middlebury coach Dennis Smith said. “And you can’t use the excuse, ‘I’m not a starter, I don’t know what’s going on.’
“My kids that had to step up tonight — Andrew Gleason at quarterback, I had some linemen that had to come in and out for us — did an excellent job stepping up to the plate.”
But in extending their multi-year winning streak to a 32nd game against the Hurricanes on Friday night, the Tigers (10-0) couldn’t define the contest with a few flashy plays as they had done so many times before.
Rather, it was an accumulation of moments. Third-down stops (six) and fourth-down stops (five). A 28-yard Jack Hounchell punt return. A tipped pass in the end zone to thwart a potential Hartford touchdown late in the first half. Four second-half sacks.
“When you play Hartford, no matter what the records are between these two teams, it’s always a tight game and that’s just what it was tonight,” Smith said.
The Tigers caught their first break late in the second quarter when a penalty, a short run and incomplete pass forced the Hurricanes (7-3) to punt from their own 13. Chase Messner fielded the kick and handed off to Hounchell for the reverse — a Middlebury staple — he carved up the left sideline to the 12.
“It’s an offensive play, really. That’s the way you look at it,” Hartford coach Matt Trombly said. “When kids are flying down the field on a sprint and kids coming at you the other way, it’s tough … if you’re not in the right position any little thing like that can snap a big play.”
Two plays later, Gleason called his own number on an option, throwing a vicious fake, then a juke, and darting 10 yards to paydirt for a 7-0 lead.
“On that (first) touchdown, I had called an inside play and he’s the one that audibled to the option to the short side when we were unbalanced and he ran it,” Smith said. “It’s just game preparation, practice preparation. He saw they were weak on that side and made the play.
“Like I say, you can audible anything you want as long as it works.”
Middlebury managed to hold the Hurricanes on downs on the ensuing possession after Hunter Judd (eight carries, 85 yards) rumbled 56 yards for a first-and-goal opportunity.
A trio of incompletions — one tipped by Hounchell — set up fourth down from the 15, where quarterback Bryce Landon found Codi Smith in the right flat, but Smith was hauled down short of the pylon to give the ball back to the Tigers with 12 seconds left in the half.
And, compounding the Hurricanes’ troubles, the Tigers’ doubled their advantage shortly after intermission.
Ali Abdul-Sater recovered a Hartford fumble on the second play of the second half and, five plays later, Jerry Niemo (11 carries, 38 yards, two TDs) scored from 3 yards out with a stretch to make the goal line.
As a squad, the Tigers managed 197 yards on the ground among seven ball carriers. Cortland Fischer set the pace with seven carries for a team-high 48 yards.
“It was going to be a close game and when Oakley went down, we just stepped up, the line stepped up and supported me and our team and that’s what got it done,” Gleason said.
From there, Hartford, held to just 97 yards of offense after the break, struggled to force the action and get back into the contest. Middlebury held Brett MacLaren, the Hurricanes’ top rusher, to just 10 yards on 10 carries.
Walkker Judd ended up leading the multi-back attack with a game-high 107 yards on 11 carries — about the only player the Tigers didn’t bottle up completely.
“They’re very well-coached and you know exactly what you’re going to get out of them,” Trombly said. “It’s nothing fancy, it’s not like they’re doing all kinds of crazy things, blitzing backers. They sit, they play, they read very well, they move around very well from one gap to the next. And they play great in the secondary.
“If you can do that, you don’t need to be fancy.”
And whatever doubts lingered after losing a number of key pieces from their last two championship runs, the Tigers silenced them for another week.
“We lost a ton of seniors last year, they were all great players, but the seniors and juniors that are playing this year are all able to play that position well and they can get the job done,” Gleason said. “It’s exciting.”