MIDDLEBURY — The Champlain Valley football team came to Middlebury Union High School on Friday night with the same 4-0 Division I record as the Tigers. At least for that evening, any further resemblance between the two teams was limited to the number of players each put on the field and to the fact that all wore helmets and cleats.
By the time 7:32 had ticked off the clock, the Tigers had run nine plays, gained 170 yards and scored 21 points, while the Redhawks had run 11 plays (including two punts), gained 16 yards, and scored nothing.
Even though the Tigers stopped themselves a couple times in the second quarter by fumbling the ball, they still gained another 180 yards on 10 plays from scrimmage and scored two more touchdowns to lead at the half, 35-0, on the way to 42-7 victory.
Not counting one punt, the Tigers averaged 22 yards per play in the first half before substituting freely after the break. At halftime, their yardage edge was 350-94.
Coach Dennis Smith summed up what he thought went into the Tigers’ dominant Friday performance, especially early: “We’ve been coming out strong. We felt we had a good week of practice. We felt we had a good game plan. The kids came out and executed right from the word go, and we hit some spots where we felt we could hit on them right off,” Smith said. “The last couple, three weeks we’ve been playing great first halves.”
And the Tigers did hit big plays, but more on that in a moment: Friday’s game, more than anything, was won in the trenches. CVU gained 1.9 yards per rushing attempt, the Tigers sacked CVU quarterbacks five times, and the Tiger backs had gaping holes to run through.
Smith talked about his line of senior center Samuel Messenger, senior guard Josh Stearns, senior tackles Sam Usilton and Holden Yildirim and junior tackle James Ploof.
“They’ve been getting stronger and stronger. They’re communicating better, and they’re just a great group of guys. They’re not oversized up there, but they’re quick, and they’re communicating,” Smith said. “They’re opening the holes for our quick backs that are hitting the seams, and they’re making the plays from there.”
Usilton, a tri-captain, agreed the unit works well together.
“(We have) a lot of cohesion. Every day in practice we come out as one line and get our reads and we just go and smack around,” Usilton said. “Then we come out here, and it’s game day.”
And, make no mistake, the Tigers made big plays.
After a mere 7-yard run by senior back Sam Smith from their own 35 on their first play from scrimmage, the Tigers stunned CVU with a play-action fake on second down. Junior quarterback Austin Robinson (two for three for a net of 85 yards) had all the time he needed to find Smith as he got behind a linebacker in the left flat. Smith caught the pass and raced the rest of the way untouched for a 57-yard score. The first of six Stearns’ point-after kicks made it 7-0 at 10:07.
After a short CVU punt, the Tiger moved 36 yards in four plays to make it 14-0 at 6:58. A bruising 14-yard run by senior fullback Jake Trautwein and an 18-yard Robinson keeper helped put the ball on the 3, and from there senior tailback Nick Felkl punched it in.
Two sacks — one by junior tackle Sam Killorin and one shared by junior end Justin Stone and Usilton, also an end — stalled CVU, and the Tigers took over on their own 32.
Three plays later, it was 21-0. After a short Felkl gain on first down, Trautwein (130 yards on four carries) burst up the middle for 62 yards. That set up a Felkl’s five-yard scoring run to make it 21-0 at 4:28.
CVU then had two drives with some movement. The first included a successful fake punt, a recovered punt after it bounced off a Tiger player, and two completions from quarterback Bennett Cazayoux to Lucas Aube. But it ended when Tiger junior safety Connor Quinn picked off Cazayoux on fourth-and-five from the Tiger 22.
After a Bulla sack of Robinson stopped the Tigers, CVU took over on its 36 and moved to the Tiger 6. Jason Cora (eight carries, 30 yards) had a couple nice runs on the march, the Tigers committed pass interference, and Cazayoux completed two passes, the second of which made it third and one from the Tiger 6.
But then CVU botched a handoff, the ball popped loose, and Usilton recovered at the Tiger 11. One play later, it was 28-0. Junior Cullen Hathaway ran wide right, high-stepped past one defender at the 30, and raced the rest of the way down the sideline.
On the Tigers last possession of the half, Trautwein (who also caught a pass for 50 yards) went off-tackle left, burst through the line, turned the corner on the secondary and went 54 yards down the left sideline untouched.
Smith said once his backs were through the line on Friday, there was room to ramble.
“They played a lot of guys up in the box. So once you broke five yards it was pretty much open field,” he said. “Then we’ve got speed. We’ve got five, six guys who can make those plays.”
The Tigers also received the second-half kickoff, which Hathaway returned 89 yards for the final Tiger score. Alex Bulla returned a punt about 70 yards for the CVU touchdown early the fourth, by which time the Tigers had long since sent in their second string.
Smith said the Tigers were confident they could shut down the run, and then contain CVU’s passing attack by rushing the passer and relying on the secondary to cover man-to-man.
“We’ve got athletes,” Smith said. “We just went man-to-man on the outside, and we were able to stop the run and put pressure on the passer.”
Usilton said the Tigers wanted to put on a good show for the big homecoming crowd, and said they knew CVU had the 4-0 record coming in. But he insisted the Tigers overall just showed up for business as usual with the larger goal of home field for the playoffs in mind.
“Oh, yeah. Homecoming’s always a great game. CVU was 4-0, we were 4-0,” Usilton said. “But we’ve just got to take it one week at a time. Every game’s a big game, so we came out and played hard. We rose to the occasion, but every week is the same week, so that’s all you can think about.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]