Hartford Football Steamrolls Middlebury to Return to Title Game

  • Hartford’s Josh Claflin surges over a pileup for a touchdown during the <br/>Hurricanes win over Middlebury in the Vermont Division I semifinals last <br/>night.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Hartford’s Josh Claflin surges over a pileup for a touchdown during the
    Hurricanes win over Middlebury in the Vermont Division I semifinals last
    night.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford quarterback Greg Shinn looks for an open receiver as lineman <br/>Chris Koloski, left, protects.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Hartford quarterback Greg Shinn looks for an open receiver as lineman
    Chris Koloski, left, protects.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Josh Claflin, of Hartford, charges in the Hurricanes' Division I<br/>semifinal win last night.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Josh Claflin, of Hartford, charges in the Hurricanes' Division I
    semifinal win last night.
    (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Hartford’s Josh Claflin surges over a pileup for a touchdown during the <br/>Hurricanes win over Middlebury in the Vermont Division I semifinals last <br/>night.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Hartford quarterback Greg Shinn looks for an open receiver as lineman <br/>Chris Koloski, left, protects.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Josh Claflin, of Hartford, charges in the Hurricanes' Division I<br/>semifinal win last night.<br/>(Valley News - James M. Patterson)

— During its latest season of domination in Vermont Division I, it hasn’t been uncommon for the undefeated Hartford High football team to churn out yardage totals north of 500 yards.

So could yesterday’s 34-0 semifinal drubbing of Middlebury be considered modest? Well, by the Hurricanes’ own standards, yes.

Thanks to a smothering defensive effort that forced five turnovers and held the fifth-seeded Tigers to just 74 yards from scrimmage, top-ranked Hartford scored first-half touchdowns on four possessions that began in Middlebury territory. Meanwhile, the Canes’ offense was “limited” to 230 yards, by far their lowest total of the season.

Hartford returns to the state championship game next Saturday at South Burlington High School, where it will face BFA-St. Albans in search of its second consecutive perfect season, third straight title and fifth in six years overall. The Bobwhites wrapped up Essex in last night’s other D-I semi, 35-6.

Despite a breezy 33-7 win over BFA in Week 2, Hartford coach Mike Stone wouldn’t let his troops forget what time of year it is following last night’s rout.

“We’ve got to keep chopping wood,” Stone said in the team’s post-game huddle, reiterating a metaphor first devised to inspire the Canes prior to its 47-37 win in the regular season final against archrival Rutland.

“You should be proud of this win, proud of the way you prepared, but it’s just like every other week. Enjoy it (this weekend) and then it’s right back to work. We’ve got to keep our nose to the grindstone.” Scoring was relatively light duty for the Canes last night. After a 41-yard kickoff return from Taylor Potter, they started out with a nine-play, 46-yard march. Ten-yard bursts from Potter (46 rushing yards, touchdown) and Josh Claflin (14 carries, 80 yards) kept the chains moving before a neutral zone infraction against Middlebury made it first-and-5, Claflin ran the final 12 yards by himself on three carries, the last a 4-yard dive on the right side for the first of the senior’s four rushing touchdowns. Dylan Rice’s PAT made it 7-0 less than four minutes in.

Junior nose tackle Patrick McGrath deftly scooped a Justin Stone fumble out of midair on Middlebury’s third play from scrimmage, returning the fumble 17 yards to set up Hartford at the Middlebury 27. The Canes took advantage of the short field, though they needed Claflin’s three-yard dive on fourth-and-inches to make it 14-0.

Hoping to avenge last year’s 42-6 loss to the Canes in the D-I final, Middlebury was determined not to let the game get away early. The Tigers (6-4) tried as QB Tyler Provencher connected on three of his first four pass attempts, helping his team reach the Hartford 26. Yet a lame-duck throw on second-and-9 was read all the way by Claflin, who fell on his back for the pick at the Canes’ 10.

Hartford was forced to punt after a pair of first downs, but the Canes’ defense wasn’t done taking the ball away. Middlebury turned it over for the second time in as many offensive plays early in the second quarter, as linebacker Joe Wood returned a Nicholas Audet fumble 40 yards to set up first-and-goal. Claflin brought it in from six yards out on the next snap to make it 21-0.

“Turnovers are the name of the game,” said Claflin, who also caught Hartford QB Greg Shinn’s only completion and finished with 109 all-purpose yards. “That’s what’s going to flip momentum, especially if it’s a close game early.

“It starts with our (defensive) front seven. They stop the run so we know when (opponents) are going to pass, and if they run, our guys (cause fumbles).” McGrath and Nolan Viens helped stuff Provencher on a fourth-and-inches sneak attempt in Tigers territory, giving the ball back to Hartford at the 35. Seven plays later, Claflin had his fourth score of the night, this time from three yards on the left side. Rice’s kick was true once again to make it 28-0.

“We didn’t have a lot of opportunities run the ball and get a lot of yards, but there’s nothing wrong with that,” said Stone, whose team is more accustomed to owning time of possession. “Working with a short field is a good thing, as long as you score.” As if daring the Hurricanes to orchestrate one of their trademark marches, Provencher pinned them at their own 4 with a 41-yard punt midway through the third quarter.

Hartford was happy to oblige, responding with an 18-play march that occupied 8:49 of game time, extending into the fourth quarter. Potter capped the 96-yard journey with a 6-yard run up the middle to make it 34-0.

With a running clock after the score, the teams traded punts before Hartford senior linebacker Jonathan Carlson picked off Provencher with two minutes left to secure the Canes’ fifth takeaway.

Despite lopsided wins in its first two playoff games — the quarterfinal was a 54-20 thrashing of South Burlington last week — Claflin doesn’t see the team losing any sense of urgency or fierceness.

“It doesn’t matter how many points we score, how much we win by, it doesn’t faze us,” the running back said. “We could score 100 percent of our drives and it wouldn’t matter. That’s the great thing about this team. We learn knew things every week, and Coach always has us focused.”

∎ Extra Points: Hartford has won 24 straight games, four shy of its streak while winning three consecutive state crowns in D-II from 1991-93. … Claflin has at least three touchdowns in three straight games and has found the end zone 20 times this year. … Next Saturday’s game will be a rematch of the 2010 final, a 33-0 Hurricanes win. BFA-St. Albans was the last team to beat Hartford, a 42-0 decision in monsoon-like conditions earlier that season. … Running back Nick Terino played for the first time since suffering a severe thumb injury against the Bobwhites on Sept. 7. … Claflin hurt his left knee when he was tackled awkwardly in the third quarter, but he missed only one play. He had it on ice after the game.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.