Gardiner Coach Rob Munzing had to make some adjustments when senior tailback Paul Lavallee went down with a bruised knee two weeks ago.
The main change was to make sure senior quarterback Mark Ladner had the ball in his hands more often. Ladner and Co. showed why against Bangor on Friday night.
Ladner rushed for 176 yards and scored two touchdowns to help power Gardiner to a 32-14 Pine Tree Conference football victory over Bangor at Cameron Stadium.
The Tigers improved to 6-1 and moved a step closer to clinching the Southern Division title. The Rams fell to 2-5.
Gardiner, now 3-0 in the South, can wrap up the division crown with a win over Oxford Hills next week.
“This is a very important game for us because, psychologically, it deals a blow to the rest of the South,” Munzing said. “We’ve certainly made our path a lot easier.”
In the simplest terms, Gardiner’s surging offensive line was the difference. The line opened up holes for Ladner and sophomore tailback Chris Whalen, who were able to bust a handful of momentum-generating long runs.
“We feel like our offensive line can blow anybody off the ball and by doing that, we’re giving some good, quality backs a chance to get to the line of scrimmage untouched,” Munzing said. “We’ve been real consistent with our ground game, a real grind-it-out kind of approach.”
Gardiner rolled up 361 yards rushing, averaging 7.4 yards per attempt. Despite the Tigers’ apparent domination up front, Bangor came out strong in the second half. Trailing 14-0 at halftime, the Rams eventually cut the deficit to 20-14 with 10 seconds left in the third quarter.
But Ladner, a 6-foot, 172-pounder, came up with a big play when Gardiner needed it.
On the fourth play of Gardiner’s ensuing possession, Ladner raced around left end, broke two tackles, and ran 30 yards down the left sideline for a touchdown. That put the Tigers on top 26-14 with 10:54 left.
“They come off the ball and blow the guys 10 yards off the ball and it’s an open field all the way,” Ladner said of his offensive line. “We got ready emotionally. I think we usually rise to the occasion.”
Gardiner scored again four minutes later, driving 64 yards on six plays. Ladner connected with Nate Whalen on a 28-yard scoring pass to make it 32-14 with 6:58 remaining.
Chris Whalen, who has been filling in for Lavallee at tailback, ran hard for the Tigers. The 6-2, 185-pounder carried 20 times for 141 yards to supplement Ladner’s impressive outing.
Most coaches try to preserve their quarterbacks by not putting them in situations where they will take a lot of punishment. Munzing has not been afraid to give Ladner a more prominent role in the Tigers’ rushing attack.
“(Ladner) was the difference in the ballgame,” Munzing said. “He’s one of the toughest kids we’ve got on our football team. Tonight, (Bangor) had to stop the inside game and when you do that, we try to get Mark the ball outside.”
Ladner showed his running prowess early when he bolted around left end and went 51 yards for a score at 5:32 of the first quarter. Chris Whalen’s conversion rush made it 8-0.
The Tigers capitalized on a Bangor fumble early in the second. Chris Whalen capped a nine-play, 52-yard drive with a one-yard TD dive at the 8:25 mark.
Gardiner almost increased its lead in the final minute of the half, but Chris Whalen fumbled at the goal line and Bangor’s Darryl Arsenault recovered in the end zone.
Bangor came out fired up in the second half, with the running of Robbie Estey keying the Rams’ 50-yard scoring march. Estey crashed over from a yard out to cut the deficit to 14-6 four minutes into the quarter.
However, Chris Whalen broke a 38-yard touchdown run four plays later to make it 20-6 Gardiner.
Again, the Rams fought back. This time, the passing of Tennett and some sure-handed receiving by Kirk Campbell and Fields paved the way. Fields capped the 71-yard march, making a diving stab of a low Tennett pass in the end zone.
Ronnie Patterson rushed for the conversion to make it 20-14 with 10 seconds left in the third, but Ladner returned the ensuing kickoff 32 yards to help set up Ladner’s second TD run.
Tennett was impressive again, completing 18 of 29 passes for 130 yards. Campbell racked up 10 receptions for 85 yards.
Brian Isaacs led the Bangor defense with 10 tackles, while Campbell was in on nine. Gardiner linebacker Jerrime Collins spearheaded the Tigers defense with 16 tackles.
Tigers 32, Rams 14
Gardiner 8 6 6 12 -32
Bangor 0 0 14 0 -14
GAR – Ladner 51 run (C. Whalen rush)
GAR – C. Whalen 1 run (kick failed)
BAN – Estey 1 run (pass failed)
GAR – C. Whalen 38 run (no conversion attempted)
BAN – Fields 13 pass from Tennett (Patterson rush)
GAR – Ladner 30 run (pass failed)
GAR – N. Whalen 28 pass from Ladner (kick failed)
Gardiner Bangor First downs 16 17 Rushing: att. – yards 49-361 25-85 Passing: att. – comp. 3-1 29-18 Yards passing 28 130 Total yards 389 215 Intercepted by 1 0 Punts – average 1-28.0 4-35.8 Fumbles – lost 2-1 1-1 Penalties – yards 7-66 7-54