GARDINER — If there has been anything more brutal than Mt. Blue’s Class B East football schedule, it is the Cougars’ injury report. The line at the trainer’s table has rivaled the halftime queue at most concession stands.
So what did Mt. Blue do Friday night with its playoff fate perhaps hanging in the balance at Gardiner’s Hoch Field? The Cougars threw caution to the wind, got even more physical, and repeatedly reaped the rewards in a hard-fought, 42-22 victory over the Tigers.
J.T. Williams carried 22 times for 149 yards and three touchdowns. Alex Gilbert recovered two fumbles and an onside kick. Nate Pratt-Holt added an interception and a 79-yard kick return touchdown, highlighting a defensive and special teams effort that shortened the field for Mt. Blue (3-3) all evening.
“The field position was great,” Williams said. “When defense and special teams can give us that good a field position, offense you just have to do your job and score at that point. Defense and special teams really set up the offense and we just followed through with it.”
Williams, back at full strength for the first time since spraining his left knee in a win over Messalonskee three weeks ago, was in on more than a dozen tackles.
He broke just as many when he had the football, easing the burden of a patchwork offensive line led by senior captains Anthony Franchetti and Brian Harris. Three starters were in street clothes.
“We’re obviously a more physical team when J.T.’s our tailback,” Mt. Blue coach Jim Aylward said. “We have so many kids banged up right now on the offensive line that its really getting difficult for the kids to keep their heads up and believe in ourselves.”
Getting an early lead didn’t hurt.
Gardiner (2-4) botched a reverse on its first play from scrimmage. Gilbert fell on it beneath a pile at the Tigers’ 32.
Williams exacted the toll with runs of 20 and 12 yards, the latter for his initial touchdown. Franchetti booted the first of his six consecutive extra points.
The Tigers threatened immediately when sophomore quarterback Eli Kropp (10 for 15, 175 yards) fired a 34-yard strike to a wide-open Austin Libby. On the next play, however, Gilbert stripped the ball right out of Tyler Caron’s hands in the open field and raced 45 yards in the other direction.
Ryan Pratt’s 14-yard strike to Pratt-Holt set up Williams’ 7-yard TD at the end of a 6-play, 31 yard excursion. It was 14-0 with 6:41 remaining in the first quarter.
“All week we’ve been trying to get an excited attitude toward defense,” Williams said. “Really we just picked up the energy a lot. We hit a lot this week in practice, and that carried into this game and worked out really well.”
Chase Begin picked off Pratt deep in Gardiner territory to give the Tigers life late in the first quarter. The ensuing drive ended in a bizarre play that put the Tigers on the board with 8:59 left in the half.
Kropp’s desperation heave into double coverage on fourth-and-12 at the Mt. Blue 28 fell into the arms of both Tigers’ receiver Jake Truman and Cougars’ defender Christian Whitney. They continued to wrestle for the ball on the ground in the end zone, but two officials signaled touchdown, and the play stood. Brad Weston rushed for the conversion.
Mt. Blue responded with Gilbert’s 35-yard kick return to the Gardiner 39. Williams, Gilbert and Caleb Hall shared the duties on the march that followed, with Pratt scampering seven yards to pay dirt on a bootleg.
“If I can get a break and the fullback can get a break for a couple of plays and have no worries of losing anything, that’s awesome,” Williams said. “And when the line is opening up holes the way it is, I think anyone can do what we’ve been doing.”
Will Gunter, McKinley Goozey and Brandon Durrell also did yeoman work in the trenches for the Cougars.
Gardiner’s aerial attack wouldn’t go away. Two long completions from Kropp to Truman set up a 3-yard score by Caron with 33.7 seconds remaining in the half, apparently bringing the Tigers with a touchdown at the half.
Until they made the fateful decision to kick to Class A triple jump champion and speedster Pratt-Holt, that is. He raced untouched down the visiting sideline on the kick return that made it a 28-14 halftime edge.
“At this level, when you’re evenly matched, mistakes pretty much tell the outcome of a game,” Aylward said. “We took advantage of some of the mistakes they made. I, myself, would never kick deep to Nate Pratt-Holt at the end of a half. I thought that was a huge momentum swing. I felt they had the momentum at that point. Especially when we came out in the second half and shot ourselves in the foot right off, and they came right down and made it a six-point game.”
Mt. Blue’s bad snap on a punt gave Gardiner the ball at midfield and led to another fourth-down touchdown pass, this one 13 yards from Kropp to Begin with four minutes left in the third period.
Pratt-Holt picked off a pass on the first play of the fourth to put the Cougars back in business. Mt. Blue drove from its own 38 in big chunks, assisted by a late hit out of bounds, and capped by Williams’ score from 3 yards out.
Zach Meader dislodged the ball from Caron’s grasp and into the hands of Durrell, leading to Pratt’s second score, a 4-yarder. Gilbert covered the ensuing squib kick to crush any Gardiner comeback hopes.
“Hopefully we can take the momentum of this game. We built some confidence,” Williams said. “Hopefully that will carry us through the next couple weeks and we can bring it back to Caldwell Field for a home playoff game.”
“I still think we’re a really good football team,” Aylward added. “We’ve got to get better defensively. If we ever get everybody back together at the same time, we’re going to be a dangerous matchup for somebody.”