It’s good! Tigers edge RHS on late field goal

MIDDLEBURY SENIOR GABE Cotell hauls in a pass in the first quarter of Friday’s game against Rutland High School. Independent photo/Steve James

TIGER JUNIOR NIKOLAI Luksch runs for a first down in the second quarter of Friday’s game against Rutland High School in Middlebury. Independent photo/Steve James

TIGER SENIOR BODE Rubright runs with the ball in the second quarter of Friday’s home game against Rutland High School. Independent photo/Steve James

RUTLAND HIGH SCHOOL defenders deny Tigers’ senior Bode Rubright a touchdown, but fumble the interception attempt in the second quarter of Friday’s game in Middlebury. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY'S NIKOLAI LUKSCH runs 80 yards for a touchdown to give the Tigers a lead in the second quarter of Friday’s home game against Rutland High School. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — Say what you will about the 7v7, all-passing, touch football Vermont high schools are playing this fall due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it doesn’t lack for entertainment value. 

Case in point: Friday’s game in which Middlebury Union hosted rival Rutland.

The Tigers won, 24-21, when junior Nikolai Luksch drilled a 20-yard field goal as time expired. His boot capped a game-winning, 67-yard march in which Luksch also caught a pair of passes from senior quarterback Zach Bean, and senior Gabe Dunn made a 33-yard grab.

The game saw Rutland three times rally from a TD behind. The Raiders tied the game at 21-21  with 2:33 to go via a 70-yard fourth-quarter drive in which Raider QB Evan Pockette connected on seven of 11 attempts, including a 23-yard heave down the right sideline to Slade Postemski on a fourth-and-10 play from the Tiger 40. 

Pockette also led the Raiders 61 yards in the final 58 seconds of the first half to tie the score at 7-7. 

In the 7v7 game there are no running plays. The ball is hiked to the quarterback, who then has four seconds to throw to five receivers covered by seven defenders, with no pass rush. Failure to throw in those four seconds results in a loss of down.

MUHS Coach Dennis Smith described the nature of the game, as seen on Friday: “You’re never out of it. You can score in a quick hurry.”

Early on the game didn’t look dramatic: Neither team moved the ball well in a scoreless first quarter. Then Bean and Pockette and different groupings entered in the second, and the teams showed life, but initially had nothing to show after long drives except missed field goals. 

But then the Tigers took over on their own 20 late in the period after a Raider punt. On the first play Bean hit Luksch in stride deep down the left sideline behind the defense, and at 2:28 the Tigers led, 7-0. 

The teams traded quick three-and-outs, and the Raiders took over on their 39. On their first play, Pockette tossed a 58-yard bomb to Joe Anderson. Tiger defender Jack Rizzo made a saving touch, but two plays later Pockette hit Eli Pockette from the 1-yard line for the tying TD. 

The Tigers answered by scoring on their opening drive of the second half. The unit led by senior QB Ryan Thomas-Danyow was more effective in the third quarter than the first, and marched 70 yards down the field with completions to linemen Willem Berry, Gabe Cotell and Sam Warren, scoring on  2-yard toss to Cotell.

Smith praised the Tigers for being unfazed by the late first-half Raider score. 

“It’s a game of momentum, and the kids didn’t hang their head,” he said.

And he noted, as usual, Tiger linemen are smaller and fleeter than their counterparts, an advantage when they are running pass routes.

“My big guys are kind of little guys, because they’re Middlebury linemen. That’s where I feel like our edge is,” Smith said. “Now they get to show their skills, and they’ve got some pretty good skills. And Ryan’s done a good job with that group.”

The quarter ended at 14-7, MUHS, and Pockette came on and sparked Rutland in the fourth. He completed four straight passes, including a 40-yarder to Postemski, and the Raiders tied the game on the fourth connection, a 10-yard slant to Postemski with 11:23 to go.

Bean and the Tigers answered. Bean hit on seven of eight passes on a 70-yard drive that made it 21-14 (there are no kickoffs — teams line up on their own 30 and go to work).

Four of those passes went to Luksch, and the seventh went 10 yards to senior Mason Kaufman on the goal line for the score at 7:12.

Back came the Raiders on a march aided by the big fourth-down completion to Postemski and capped by a five-yard Pockette dart to Coughlin at 2:33.

The Tigers answered one last time. Bean hit Luksch for 13, Dunn for 33 and Luksch for 11, Smith called time at 0:03, and Luksch nailed the field goal as the clock zeroed out. 

Smith said there was plenty of credit to go around.

“I thought Zach had a heck of a game tonight,” he said.

The defense held its fifth straight opponent to three touchdowns or fewer. 

“The defense has been playing pretty tough all year long,” Smith said.  

And Smith said he has had help designing passing plays from Middlebury College Coach Bob Ritter. 

“I meet a certain somebody up at the golf course,” Smith said. “And he gives me play sheets. And we talk about this and that and tweak it to my verbiage, and we go from there.”

In all, the Tigers outgained the Raiders, 414-325. Pockette hit 21 of 32 passes to account for 270 of those RHS yards.

Bean went 16 of 28 for 269 yards, and Thomas-Danyow was 11 for 23 for 145 yards. Luksch snagged nine passes; Cotell, five; Bode Rubright, four; Warren, three; and Berry and Dunn, two each.

The fact that so many players are involved in the offensive and defensive schemes has made it fun, Smith said, as much as most no doubt still wish for standard 11-player football.

“The kids are totally having fun,” Smith said. “They’re coming, they’re working hard. We’re moving people around a little bit, but everybody’s touching the ball.”

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