PITTSFIELD, Maine — Maine Central Institute has ruled the LTC Class D North football ranks for the last three years, but the gap between the Huskies and the rest of the top contenders may be narrowing, although the league title looks like it will be decided at Alumni Field in a month.
The two-time defending conference champions used a powerful running game and a prideful defense to hold off Orono 35-25 in a battle of unbeatens at Alumni Field on Friday night, providing coach Tom Bertrand his 100th career victory.
“There’s been a rivalry with Orono over the last five or six years that makes it extra special,” said Bertrand, whose program has gone from being winless in 2012 to stretching its current LTC winning streak to 27 games. “We started this run in Orono a few years ago, we had to turn the corner by beating a very good Orono team.
“The 100 wins have taken a long time to happen, but when you get quality kids in a good program those things come.”
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It was the second straight win over an undefeated opponent for MCI, which pulled away after a tight first half to defeat Dexter 36-2 on the road last Saturday.
“Dexter played us tough and Orono’s played us tough and Bucksport, and we haven’t seen (4-2) Mount View yet,” said Bertrand. “We’re going to see these teams in the playoffs, we know we’re not done. The better teams in the league are better this year and everybody’s going to be out for it.”
The Huskies ground out 394 rushing yards in the victory, with Eli Bussell gaining 170 yards and scoring two touchdowns on 18 carries while Josh Buker added 142 yards and two scores on 13 tries and Pedro Matos had 73 yards on nine attempts.
“Our line does really well blocking for us,” said Bussell. “You’ve got to give the credit to them. They make the holes and we run through them.”
Linebackers Bussell and Adam Bertrand and defensive tackle Aaron Schanck also keyed an MCI defense that fared well against Orono’s ground game but struggled to control Coutts and the air attack, particularly during a first half in which neither team punted and the Huskies finished with a 21-18 edge thanks to Devon Varney’s three successful extra-point kicks.
“We were feeling good offensively but it was a change for us because we’re not used to having to make defensive adjustments,” coach Bertrand said of the opening two quarters, “but we knew coming in that they were going to be tough and be able to move the ball.
“We weren’t worried, we just knew that we were going to have to make some adjustments if we were going to stop them.”
MCI (7-0) got some breathing room when Buker scored on a 56-yard run on the second play from scrimmage in the third quarter, and the Huskies defense subsequently stopped Orono on three straight red-zone possessions to maintain its slight cushion.
Orono did mount one last threat when Coutts found Matt Fowler open down the left sideline for a 98-yard touchdown strike with 2:47 remaining. But an onside kick didn’t go the required 10 yards and Bussell scored on an insurance touchdown from 2 yards out with 29.1 seconds left.
“We started slow,” said Bussell. “Orono’s a good team, they came out and punched us, and then we responded.
“This will help us moving forward because we got the chance to play a full four-quarter game and we’ll be able to take this into next week.”
Orono (6-1) finished with 454 yards of total offense, with Fowler having nine catches for 173 yards and two scores in addition to 94 rushing yards. Backfield mate Keenan Collett added seven catches for 98 yards while Coutts passed for two touchdowns and threw one interception.
Coutts scored on a 1-yard run on the Red Riots’ first possession barely three minutes into the contest but the Red Riots missed the PAT kick and led 6-0.
Buker’s 25-yard run tied the game with 5:24 left in the opening period, with Varney’s first PAT kick giving MCI a 7-6 lead.
Orono struck back with an 85-yard scoring run that ran more than 10 minutes off the clock, converting three fourth-down plays along the way. MCI’s defense stopped the Red Riots three times with goal to go from the 1 before Josiah Grace went off right tackle into the end zone to make it 12-7 with 6:24 left in the first half.
A 21-yard run by Buker restored MCI to a 14-12 lead four minutes later but the first-half scoring was nowhere near done.
Orono went 80 yards in 57 seconds to regain the lead on a 38-yard pass from Coutts to Fowler with 1:20 left before intermission, but MCI answered with a 66-yard march in just 60 seconds, with Buker passing 6 yards to Adam Bertrand for the go-ahead score.