MANCHESTER >> After a perfect regular season in 2014, the Burr and Burton Academy football team's year ended in disappointing fashion in the semifinal against Fair Haven.
That loss left a bad taste in the mouth of the Bulldogs and in response, BBA was unblemished in the regular season for a second straight year.
They left no doubt after a resounding 40-point win in the 2015 semifinal over Milton, improving to 10-0 and are one win from their first championship.
But it won't be easy, as Bellows Falls — second in Division II rankings this year — stands in the Bulldogs' way.
"We know what we're up against, we call it big boy football," said BBA coach Jason Thomas, who has led the Bulldogs since 2008. "They want to line up with a big offensive line and big backs, get off the ball and run, run, run. Everyone thinks we're a passing offense, but we try to stay balanced. They don't disguise, they're good at what they do and they want you to stop it. It's an interesting matchup."
To the outsider, it seems that BBA is a pass-happy offense — and to a point, that's right. Junior signal-caller Griff Stalcup, in his third year under center for BBA has completed 65 percent of his passes (219 attempts) for 2,343 yards and a whopping 34 touchdowns, compared to seven interceptions.
But just as importantly, Stalcup can run the rock, along with a handful of backs including starters Will Tucker and Ray Gormley.
All three average at least six yards a carry, combining for 16 rushing scores. As a team, 15 players have run the ball and they average 5.6 yards a touch.
"From the outside, it looks different, but inside, it's the same," Stalcup said. "It all starts with the lineman, running or passing. We're very balanced, they think we're only a passing team."
The linemen have been a huge key, only allowing Stalcup to be sacked 10 times this season. The ability to move in the pocket plus staying upright pays major dividends in keeping the offense cranked, but Bellows Falls is one of the tougher defenses not only in D-II, but the entire state.
In fact, four BBA receivers have had at least one 100-yard game this season and Jay McCoy actually had 221 yards receiving and two touchdowns against the same Terrier team on Oct. 17.
"We're fortunate to have good athletes we trust in space, they try to take away one, others have stepped up," Thomas said. "The whole goal is to stay balanced and keep the defense on [its] heels."
Even with the perceived advantage of already having a win over the Terriers, it was the closest one for BBA this season, a 19-14 win. Thomas said it doesn't matter on Saturday.
"They could have won and we could have scored more," said Thomas, referring to a goal-line stand by the Bulldogs and four turnovers by his offense. "I expect it to be [that close] in the final, they will be fired up, very motivated to come and get revenge for that first game."
The Bulldogs defense will also have something to say before the final whistle on Saturday. They have a stout front seven led by defensive lineman Will Baker, who is tops on the team with seven sacks. Connor Simonds is the leading tackler in the linebacking corps with 61, including 14 for loss and four sacks. McCoy is the ball hawk in the secondary, with a team-high seven interceptions. Carter Vickers isn't far behind with four picks.
"Our offense gets the press, but the defense has gotten us to this point, no question," Thomas said. "We might give up some yards, but not many points. Against Milton, with our starters vs. theirs, we allowed 24 yards of total offense in three quarters. They don't get enough credit, but we hoping to get one more tough game from them."
Tucker said that playing in the state championship is bittersweet, as win or lose, it's his final game as a BBA Bulldog.
"It means the world to be [in the championship]," Tucker said. "We owe the program to [Coach] Thomas, he really put this together. It would feel great to win the championship, but you can't have history as a goal, you just want to leave your mark and we have another chance to do that. It's the chance of a lifetime and I'm excited."
Thomas said that bringing a title to Manchester and BBA would go a long way in establishing the Bulldogs as a strong program state-wide.
"We want to earn respect, we don't feel like we get respect around the state for playing good hard football," Thomas said. "They give us credit for playing offense, but I think they think we're soft and play finesse football. We play hard, physical football and we're a team to be reckoned with."