MIDDLEBURY — The 2012 Middlebury Union High School football season got off to a promising start on this past Friday, when a young Tiger team used tough defense, crisp special teams work and flashes of offensive potential to throttle visiting Mount Mansfield, 28-6.
The Tigers parlayed defense and special teams into a 16-0 halftime lead and remained in control during a more offensively oriented second half.
MUHS Coach Dennis Smith said he was pleased with the performance, especially given uncertainty after graduation losses to his 2011 Division I finalist squad and considering inexperience among his 2012 group.
“I’m very happy. I didn’t know. We only had maybe 12 kids out here tonight that actually played on the varsity football field last year,” Smith said. “They played a lot of football tonight, but we had a lot of other kids who really stepped up.”
Senior quarterback Tyler Provencher pointed to the contributions of less-experienced players like juniors Sam Usilton (who caught a TD pass and was a force on defense) and Nick Felkl (who rushed for 44 yards and scored two TDs), and sophomore Austin Robinson (who contributed two long kick returns, caught a TD pass and picked off a pass) as well as veteran leadership.
“I felt that our underclassmen really stepped up, people who hadn’t really played before,” said Provencher, who threw two touchdown passes and finished four-for-seven for 86 yards through the air. “And the seniors helped them get through it.”
Early on, the Tiger offense sputtered, but they won the field position battle. The Tigers allowing only a six-yard kickoff return to the Cougar 11 to open the game and then surrendering only 31 yards and one first down in the opening half.
The game’s first points came on a safety at 4:31 of the first quarter, when the Cougars snapped the ball through the end zone on a punt attempt.
The Cougars punted on their next possession, and Robinson returned it 54 yards to the Cougar 10 late. One play as time expired in the first quarter gained two yards, and then the Tigers — whose only first-quarter first down came on a penalty — cashed in on the first play of the next quarter. Provencher lofted a ball to Robinson in the right side of the end zone, and Josh Stearns’ extra point made it 8-0.
The Tigers stuffed another kick return, and the Cougars punted from their 19. The Tigers took over on the MMU 43 and finally got their running game going. Carries by junior fullback Jakob Trautwein, junior halfback Sam Smith and Felkl moved the ball to the 13, and from there Felkl ran wide left for the score at 6:20. The point-after made it 16-0, and that score stood at the half.
The Tigers then took the second-half kickoff and moved to make it 22-0, a job made easier by Robinson’s 39-yard return to the Cougar 46.
Smith said the special-teams success was not an accident.
“We spend just as much time on our special teams as we do on our offense and defense. We don’t think of it as a play off, we think of it as a chance to make something happen,” he said.
Provencher’s 21-yard strike to junior Keenan Bartlett helped move the ball to the MMU 16, and from there Felkl ran left again behind senior captain Derek Bagley at guard and Jonas Hastings at tackle to make it 22-0.
Smith said the line — junior center Samuel Messenger at center, senior Taylor Patterson at right guard and senior Gabe Laberge at right tackle also started — settled in as the game went on, and the Tiger coaching staff called passes to make the Cougars pay for their defensive tactics.
“We just made slight adjustments offensively blocking,” Smith said. “But with what we were doing there were also some holes with the play-action pass, we felt, as we got going. They were really cheating to stop the run.”
At 2:15 of the third, the Cougars got on the board with a 66-yard march. Backs Dakota Jones, Tyler Ducharme, Matthew Merchant and Luke Dolan all earned positive yards, and QB Marcello Mosca scored on a 17-yard keeper. Provencher intercepted Marcello’s conversion attempt, and it was 22-6.
The Tigers stalled on the Cougar 48, but Provencher got a good bounce on a punt and the Cougars were again pinned deep, on their own 2-yard line. The Tigers soon took over on the MMU 36, and on third-and-13 Provencher hit Usilton in stride on the goal line to clinch the win.
MMU gained some garbage-time yardage to make their final total a semi-respectable 211 yards. The MUHS defense held three Cougar passers to two-for-10 for five net yards after two sacks for minus-17 yards were factored in. MMU finished with 37 runs for 206 yards.
MUHS finished with 227 yards, including 41 rushes for 141 yards. Felkl (13 attempts, 44 yards), Trautwein (12 for 41) and Smith (six for 25) led the way.
Coach Smith said he expects more rushing production as the Tigers “get a little better, more solid, at what we’re supposed to blocking-wise offensively” and as the coaches introduce more plays.
“We still have some things we’ve got to work on,” he said. “I still feel these little mistakes that are costing us. With time we’ll get better at that.”
Smith won’t hesitate to throw if necessary.
“I’ve got a quarterback who is tall. I’ve got some kids who can run and catch the ball, too,” he said. “It’s not a philosophy difference, it’s just running what I feel is going to work at that time.”
And some things won’t change.
“We live and die on defense. That’s our first and foremost thing. We’re going to play tough defense year-in and year-out. We’re going to be fundamental, and hopefully that’s going to keep us in ballgames.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]