RUTLAND — Middlebury Union High School football Coach Dennis Smith stood teary-eyed at midfield, soaked head to toe, trying to take it all in Saturday night. The Tigers had just capped their undefeated season with a win over powerhouse South Burlington to capture the Division I state title.
Behind an impressive performance by junior quarterback Austin Robinson, who threw for one touchdown and ran for three, the Tigers beat the Rebels, 26-6, in front of a capacity crowd at Alumni Field in Rutland.
“It will eventually sink in,” Smith said. “These kids worked hard all year long. I can’t say enough about the jobs they did on both sides of the ball.”
After a series of bitter playoff exits in recent years, the Tigers (11-0) captured their first state title since 2002. The Rebels finished the season 9-2, losing twice to Middlebury.
In the title game, Robinson was the Tigers’ leading rusher, running for 145 yards on 20 carries.
“He’s a great, great quarterback and he’s done and outstanding job,” Smith said. He’s only a junior, so we have one more year with him.”
Alternating carries between Robinson, fullback Jakob Trautwein and running back Samuel Smith, the Tigers kept the South Burlington defense off balance all night.
“That’s the way our offense works — we have so many weapons,” Robinson said. “Anyone can shine any given week.”
In a rematch of the Oct. 11 regular season game, in which the Tigers beat the Rebels 42-20, South Burlington was again plagued by turnovers. Rebel backs fumbled twice and quarterback Hunter Riehle threw two interceptions. Three of these miscues resulted in Tiger touchdowns.
Tiger play was also undisciplined at times, turning the ball over twice and committing four penalties for 50 yards. The Rebels were unable to capitalize on these mistakes, and that proved to be the difference maker.
South Burlington was dealt a tough blow early in the game. Star running back Tanner Contois, who entered Saturday with an Eric Dickerson-like 2,200 yard rushing, limped off the field during the Rebels’ first offensive series and never returned.
“When their main running back goes down, that’s a huge thing because that’s a big part of their offense,” Smith said.
Middlebury players expressed support for Contois.
“To be honest, I was scared — you’re not out here to hurt people,” Trautwein said. “He’s such a great player, I wouldn’t want to end his football career here.”
“It’s a shame,” Robinson added. “I know that’s not the way he wanted his season to end.”
The Tigers stumbled on their first drive, turning the ball over on a fumble at their own 38-yard line.
Without their best back, South Burlington took to the air. Riehle completed 19 of 28 passes for 174 yards, but the relentless Middlebury secondary prevented Rebel receivers from gaining yards after receptions. The Rebels had no plays longer than 25 yards in the game.
At 1:56 in the opening quarter, the Rebels struck first. After Tiger cornerback Samuel Smith nearly intercepted a screen pass by Riehle, the South Burlington QB connected with Jeremy Clements for a 4-yard touchdown pass. At the end of the first stanza, South Burlington led 6-0.
But that lead would not last long.
Early in the second quarter Rebel running back Adnane Adossama fumbled and the Tigers recovered, just outside Rebel territory. The next play, Robinson ran a bootleg to the left side, eluding Rebel defenders for a 55-yard score. The point after by Joshua Stearns was good, putting the Tigers up 7-6. They would never again trail.
“We settled in and made adjustments, and started making the plays we needed to make,” Smith said.
The Rebels looked rattled on their ensuing possession, committing back-to-back false start penalties that backed them up to their own 7-yard-line. On the night, the Rebels committed five penalties for 25 yards.
In the closing minutes of the second quarter, the Tigers again capitalized on Rebel mistakes. A Riehle pass intended for receiver Cam Nolting was intercepted by Tiger safety Bobby Ritter, who, at 5-foot-10, out-jumped Nolting to wrestle the ball down in front of the Middlebury sideline.
The Tigers marched downfield in a nine-play, 53-yard drive punctuated by a 2-yard touchdown pass from Robinson to Cullen Hathaway. Wise clock management by Coach Smith left only eight seconds before the halftime buzzer, preventing South Burlington from running any plays when it got the ball back. The Tigers headed into the locker room up, 13-6.
After a Middlebury three-and-out to start the third quarter, South Burlington fumbled on its first play from scrimmage. In the scrum the Tigers came up with the ball and took over at the Rebels’ 19-yard-line.
The Tigers returned to their ground-and-pound approach that found success in the first half.
Robinson, the Tigers’ field general, remained one step ahead of the Rebels the whole game. Facing a crucial third-and-five play, Robinson detected a South Burlington blitz. He faked a handoff to Samuel Smith and ran the ball himself for a first down.
The next play, Robinson ran again, this time for a 7-yard touchdown at 7:12 in the third. A two-point conversion attempt was thwarted, and the Tigers led 19-6.
For the rest of the game, Middlebury’s defense would not relent, stopping South Burlington on a fourth-and-6 play on its own 45-yard-line.
Tiger back Nathan Peck nearly broke for a touchdown but stepped out of bounds at the 20-yard-line after a 28-yard run. Middlebury scored two plays later on a 12-yard Robinson carry, his third touchdown of the night. Stearns added the extra point, putting the Tigers up 26-6 with 10:33 remaining in the game.
On South Burlington’s last drive, Riehle moved the ball downfield efficiently, completing six passes in a row. But facing pressure from the Middlebury pass rushers, Riehle threw an errant pass that was picked off by Tiger corner back Nathan Herrmann to seal the game.
The Tigers mobbed the field as the clock expired, to the roar of the hundreds of Middlebury fans that made the trip down.
Finally given the chance to reflect on the evening, standing along the fence to thank well-wishers for their support, Robinson couldn’t help but smile.
“With the great season we had, there was only one way to finish it off,” he said. “We did it, and that means the world to this community. It’s great.”