MIDDLEBURY — With about 0:30 left in Friday’s key Division II football game vs. visiting Mount Mansfield, the Middlebury Union High School coaches were hoping for a blocked punt, a long return, or, failing those options, a big play from an offense that had found the going tough for most of the evening.
More likely, they were starting to think about play-calling for the overtime that loomed large: With the Cougars lining up to punt from their own 28, the score stood at 12-12.
But then the snap bounced to the MMU punter, and he went to a knee to field it. He was down on the spot, he caught the ball — at the Cougar 18.
On an emotional night in which the 2010 MUHS game program was dedicated in a pre-game ceremony to terminally ill longtime radio announcer Dick Bullock, Tiger senior quarterback Brendon Burell described what happened next.
“Their safety seemed to suck up when I rolled out, because he expected me to run it, and then Dillon was just open in the corner,” Burell said.
After he took the snap, Burell had taken a few steps to his right, and found junior receiver Dillon Robinson in the back right side of the end zone. Robinson caught the ball in full stride at 0:18 to make it 18-12.
The Tigers didn’t convert the extra point, but it hardly mattered — their defense held MMU QB T.J. Wesson to 0-for-5 passing, and senior safety Jerry Hoffman capped a strong game by picking off Wesson’s final desperation toss, and the score held up.
But the ending was still a stunner: It came after the Cougars had tied the game at 12-12 with a 91-yard drive with 2:02 to go, but missed the extra point kick on a call they disputed. And then the Tigers had moved to the MMU 20 with 1:07 left before fumbling. And they forced that late punt only when Wesson came up inches short on third down.
Burell — 4-for-8 passing for 61 yards and two TDs despite a heavy pass rush — acknowledged the Tigers caught a break or two, including the botched punt.
“We got lucky with all the penalties and stuff,” Burell said. “We were all expecting overtime and getting ready for that.”
MUHS coach Dennis Smith agreed “the last big mistake” was critical, but also praised his team for winning the physical war of 18-12 with the 1-2 Cougars, a 2009 D-II playoff team. MMU outgained the Tigers, 226-188, with 233 yards rushing (MMU lost 7 yards to an Alex Bowdish sack).
“The kids hung in there. We were on our heels the whole night. But ... we kept fighting,” Smith said.
The Tigers gained 28 of their yards on their first two carries, a 19-yard dive by fullback Steel White and a sweep by Marshall Hastings (eight carries, 64 yards). But a fumble ended that promising start at the MMU 26, and the Cougars adjusted to take away White (10 carries, 27 yards).
And on their second possession, the Cougars moved 63 yards, capping the drive with Mike Williams’ 5-yard run at 3:09 of the first quarter. The conversion failed — as did both teams’ all night — and it was 6-0.
Two possessions later, a high snap on an MMU punt set up MUHS on the Cougar 19. On third-and-six, Burell hit Hastings in the back of the end zone to make it 6-6 at 9:02 of the second.
It remained at 6-6 at the half. The Tigers only gained 25 yards in two second-quarter possessions, but held the Cougars to 41 yards in the period.
A strange third quarter ended at 6-6. The Tigers went nowhere after receiving the kickoff, but the Cougars fumbled the punt. MUHS again couldn’t move, but tried a fake punt at midfield, and came up short, setting up MMU at its 47. They moved to the Tiger 27, but two penalties killed the threat.
Then the Tigers moved 74 yards to score. Bryan Ashley-Selleck ran for six yards and caught a 15-yard pass from Burell, Hastings ran right for 19 yards, and White managed two yards up the middle as the third quarter ended with the Tigers facing second-and-eight on the MMU 33.
Two plays later, they made it 12-6. Burell ran a keeper right for 13 yards as right tackle Patrick Fifield sealed off two defenders. Then the Tigers ran a counter right, and pulling guards Austin Quesnel and Joey Zeno paved the way for Hastings’s 20-yard run at 11:46.
The Cougars had to punt again. Hoffman returned it to the MMU 34, and soon MUHS faced fourth-and-six from the 28. The Tigers elected to punt, and Tyler Malloy put the ball out of bounds at the MMU 9 with 8:42 to go.
And the Cougars promptly marched 91 yards to make it 12-12; Williams capped the drive with an 18-yard run at 2:02.
And after that wild finish, the Tigers were on top.
“That’s called hanging on and getting a break at the end,” Smith said. “You just hope you don’t make a big mistake, and they ended up making the last big mistake.”
Smith credited his defense with putting the Tigers in a position to win.
“We just kept adjusting all night long,” Smith said. “Our guys stood up for the battle. It was slugfest for our defensive linemen.”
Burell said the result should give the Tigers a shot in the arm.
“It means a lot. It gives us a lot more confidence being 3-0,” Burell said. “I think with all that confidence, with homecoming coming up against Brattleboro, it’s going to help us a lot more.”
For comments about Dick Bullock and pictures of Bullock and the game, see addisonindependent.com. Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.