SOUTH BURLINGTON -- Rice Memorial fumbled the ball three times during the first half of Saturday’s Division II high school football championship game.
The Green Knights, however, had a tight grip on the hardware during the post-game award ceremony after recovering from early miscues to nab a 23-14 victory over Bellows Falls at South Burlington High School and punctuate a perfect season.
Senior Billy O’Brien rushed for 111 yards and two touchdowns, and Rice’s vaunted defense kept another high-powered opponent in check as the top-seeded Green Knights (11-0) secured their second title in three years.
O’Brien’s 46-yard touchdown rush with a little less than six minutes remaining in the contest gave the Green Knights a 23-14 lead in what had been a nip-and-tuck affair with the second-seeded Terriers (9-2).
"It’s pretty much the most amazing feeling I could ever experience," said O’Brien, also the heart and soul of Rice’s defense as a linebacker.
In addition to a pair of turnovers in its opening two possessions, Rice lost the offensive services of star running back Casey Tipson to a shoulder injury in the first quarter.
Bellows Falls was also dealt a big blow when running back Zachary Rawling exited the game with a knee injury shortly after his 41-yard touchdown dash provided the Terriers a 6-0 lead 4:19 into the contest.
"The ability to overcome adversity is what separates good teams from great teams," O’Brien said. "We knew going into it they were going to have some good plays; they were going to score; they were going to make us fumble. We just had to overcome it and play hard."
Rice settled down late in the first quarter, taking an 8-6 lead when O’Brien capped a 10-play drive with a 6-yard TD and ensuing two-point conversion run.
Rice took a 16-6 lead when Charlie Boardman hooked up with Matt Maynard, taking advantage of a BF turnover. Chris Jansen set up the Rice TD, forcing the turnover on a strip-sack of BF quarterback Ethan Illingworth.
Bellows Falls responded with a strong drive, Ian McKeen scoring on a 16-yard run to cut the deficit to 16-14 midway through the fourth quarter before O’Brien’s clinching TD run.
O’Brien, Jansen and Maynard keyed a Rice defense that’s been stifling all season. The Green Knights forced four Bellows Falls fumbles and swarmed Illingworth in the second half. O’Brien stuffed BF’s fourth-down play on the 15-yard line late in the fourth quarter to hold the Terriers well below their 34-points-a-game average coming into the title game.
"Our defense did what it needed to do, then our offense stepped it up in the second half and got the job done," said Jansen, a defensive back who also had two fumble recoveries and two sacks.
Boardman completed 5 of 10 passes for 52 yards with a touchdown, but the senior was picked off by Ethan Amidon on the first play of the game.
"We tried to take a shot early on," Rice coach Neil Brodeur said. "We thought BF was going to be jacked and over-pursue, and we thought we might catch them. The kid made a great play diving for that interception. Once the nerves got out and we started holding onto the ball both teams settled into what they do best."
Carson Fullam rushed for 58 yards, McKeen ran for 50 yards for a Bellows Falls team that picked up 223 of its 259 yards on the ground. The Terriers also lost to Rice, 8-0, in the second game of the season.
John A. Fantino can be reached at email@example.com or 651-4851.