— John Pierson (@JPPierson) September 14, 2019
MIDDLETOWN — Middletown needed one quarter of football to find its footing in Friday night’s season opener at Rosek-Skubel Stadium. Offensively, at least.
The defense was on its game from the opening whistle.
After a slog of a first 12 minutes, the Blue Dragons settled in and put three second-quarter touchdowns on the board in a five-minute span – one via a blocked punt – which proved plenty in their 35-7 victory over Bristol Eastern.
Despite having underclassmen up and down the roster, the Dragons played with poise for four quarters and, with its no-huddle offense sputtering out of the gate, they drew energy from the defense. Morello raved about coordinator Josh Rosek’s unit afterward.
“The defense was awesome all night,” he said. “They were huge in the first half when we couldn’t get going offensively. Give Bristol Eastern a lot of credit because their defense played really well. It took our offense a while to make adjustments, but the defense was excellent tonight.”
Middletown’s pressure took away any semblance of Bristol Eastern’s passing game. Senior Bryce Curtin was picked off twice and sacked three times, while finishing 9 of 25 for 76 yards.
“We get to the ball, get to the ball. It’s good when you have speed,” Morello said. “All 11 kids can run to the ball, and the defensive line can run to the ball, too. It’s something coach Rosek has stressed in every practice. The kids did a really nice job executing tonight.”
Senior quarterback Chris Danas was 17 for 27 for 163 yards and two scores out of the spread offense. Middletown ran the ball just 25 times, with sophomore Shaun Gaskins carrying nine times for a game-high 88 yards and a touchdown.
Middletown’s offense over the years has been built on the backs of fast, experienced ballcarriers, but this year’s team has three sophomores trying to get acclimated to the varsity level. Gaskins, Will Nta, who scored on a 55-yard run in the third quarter, and Levar Cassanova (11 yards on six carries) were making their first varsity starts.
Middletown had opportunities to score on its last possession of the first quarter and first possession of the second quarter, but came away empty with a missed field goal and dropped pass near the goal line.
The Dragons did not dwell on either miss. On the Lancers’ next drive, a Curtin pass was tipped at the line of scrimmage and intercepted by Gaskins, who also plays linebacker. On Middletown’s second play from scrimmage, Danas found Anthony Pappa on a fade route near the pylon for a 30-yard touchdown with 5:34 left in the half.
Danas said it wasn’t his best throw.
“That fade ball was what jump-started everything,” Danas said. “We came out, the defense made a good play (to set it up), I put the ball in a good spot and Anthony made a great play on a bad ball. That was all him right there. It all started with that one play.”
If that one wasn’t enough to knock out Eastern, there were two more to come.
After the Lancers were forced to punt from their 40, the Dragons got possession at their own 30 and quickly faced a third-and-3 situation. Danas threw a screen pass to Amil Phillip on the left, and with a few good blocks near midfield Phillip won a footrace to the end zone for a 67-yard score. Matt Aresco’s PAT making it 14-0.
“We knew Middletown was going to be a challenge and for a lot of the game I thought we met that challenge,” Bristol Eastern coach Anthony Julius said. “When you play a team of their caliber, their skill set, big plays hurt, and we talked about eliminating as many explosive plays as we could. Unfortunately, they had too many of them and we couldn’t recover from them.”
The decisive blow came fast. Eastern was held to three and out and forced to punt from its own 30, at which time Morello called timeout with 45 seconds to go. On the snap, senior Kristian Glemaud blew through the line, got two hands on Jack Bachand’s kick, recovered it on the bounce and scored from 10 yards out.
“Us blocking the punt was a game changer,” Middletown senior lineman and captain Eric Alicea said. “Every turnover changes everything. It brought the other team down and brought us up.”
The Dragons extended their lead to 28-0 on Gaskins’ 36-yard touchdown run with 3:59 left in the third quarter.
Eastern’s Alex Marshall (56 yards, 13 carries) scored from 2 yards out on Eastern’s ensuing possession before Nta’s 55-yard run down the right sideline in the final minute of the third quarter capped the scoring.
The Lancers have 11 returning starters from a team that went 0-10 last year. They lost to Middletown for the ninth straight season.
“There’s a reason that Middletown is at the top of our league,” Julius said. “There’s no denying it. Sal is a great coach and has great football players. This is a good measuring stick for us.”