MILTON — The Yellowjackets overcame turnovers, a scrappy U-32 defense and the coldest night of the season to deliver a 19-13 victory to a packed house on Homecoming Night at Phil Hughes Memorial Field.
Milton’s potent offense was held to a mere 246 yards one week after hanging 39 points and 373 yards on Fair Haven, but rode a few big plays and some excellent work by the defense to improve to 5-2 on the season and remain in position to nab one of the four Division II playoff spots. The Raiders dropped to 2-5 with the loss.
Friday night, Milton appeared as though it would cruise to an easy victory during its first drive of the game when it ran roughshod over the U-32 defense on seven consecutive rushing plays, moving the ball from its 40 to the Raider 14. Then, with the defense drawn in and expecting the run, sophomore quarterback Cole Reilly lofted a perfect pass to junior wide receiver Chris McClellan in the corner of the end zone to put the Yellowjackets ahead 7-0 with 8:15 remaining in the first quarter. However, after stopping the Raiders on downs on their first drive and taking over at their own 49, the Yellowjackets committed their first of three fumbles on the next play and immediately turned the ball over. After a good stand by its defense, Milton coughed the ball up again on its own 13, and this time, the Raiders would not be denied. Fullback Adam Gowans took it up the middle from four yards out to tie the game at seven apiece on the first play of the second quarter.
The remainder of the first half was characterized by sloppy play on the part of the Yellowjackets and stout defense by the Raiders.
Milton and U-32 run extremely similar flexbone-style option attacks, and points were hard to come by in the early going, as both defenses keyed in on plays they practice against every week.
“They defended what we do pretty much better than anyone we’ve played so far this year,” Milton coach Chris Hughes said.
Milton fumbled for the third time in the half on the kickoff following Gowan’s touchdown, but the offense was again bailed out when the defense forced a three-and-out by the Raiders.
The Yellowjackets had several excellent chances to put more points on the board in the first half, but found themselves either stymied by U-32 or shaking their heads following miscues time and time again. Reilly had two deep passes, both of which would have gone for touchdowns, slip just through a receiver’s fingertips on one drive late in the second quarter. On its next drive, Milton faced a first and goal on the U-32 6-yard line only to come away empty handed. The Yellowjackets went into the locker room at the half still deadlocked with the Raiders and feeling as though they had left several points on the field.
“Our guys really needed a reality check, and they got that at halftime,” Hughes said. “I thought we played much better in the second half.”
Despite McClellan’s propensity for getting past the Raider secondary, with cold weather and bad luck limiting the passing game’s effectiveness in the first half, the Yellowjackets stuck with their powerful running attack in the second half, and it paid almost immediate dividends.
Taking over on its 49 with 7:12 left in the third, Milton moved methodically down the field behind the powerful running of senior fullback Geoff Gadbois, who carried six times on the drive before scoring from one yard out. After the point-after was blocked, Milton led 13-7 with 4:21 remaining.
The Raiders refused to go away, however, and with neither team willing to give an inch and the game still within one possession going into the final quarter, Milton turned to leading rusher Jonah Blatt to put U-32 away for good.
Blatt, who was named Homecoming King at halftime, had been uneven leading up to the fourth, mixing in several long gains with a handful of big losses. However, he turned it on when his team needed him the most. With 8:26 remaining in the game, he found a huge hole off left tackle and burned the Raider secondary for an 81-yard touchdown.
“Jonah’s tough,” Hughes said. “He’ll be the first to tell you that his success is the result of a lot of hard work this offseason, especially in the weight room.”
Down 19-7 after another blocked extra point and with time running out, the Raiders continued to fight and drove 46 yards before recovering their own fumble in the end zone with 3:14 remaining to bring the deficit back to six. However, they were unable to get the ball back from the Yellowjackets rushing attack, and with 1:47 remaining, Blatt broke off a 33-yard gain that iced the game.
“It wasn’t pretty, but at the end of the day we won a game we shouldn’t have won, and a win is a win whether you win by 30 or 6,” Hughes said.
Blatt led all rushers in the game with 149 yards and a score. Gadbois added 72 yards for Milton, which ran for 206 yards in the game. Reilly and McClellan connected twice for 40 yards and a touchdown, and McClellan also drew a key pass-interference penalty that led to Gadbois’ touchdown in the third quarter.
Up next for the Yellowjackets is Division I Colchester, and then they finish their regular season with a game against North Country the following week. A win in either game would ensure a playoff spot for Milton, which enters this week ranked third in Division II.
“We got a little banged up tonight,” Hughes said. “We have to heal our guys, and we gotta polish offensively.”