GARDINER – The offensive rejuvenation for the Gardiner football team didn’t come in the form of elaborate schemes, or tricky formations, or dusted-off plays from the back of the Tiger playbook.

“I only called three plays,” coach Joe White said.

It came, rather, via a road-grading offensive line. And a whole lot of Nate Malinowski.

Malinowski erupted for 381 yards and three touchdowns on 24 carries, leading the third-seeded Tigers past No. 6 Morse, 26-12, in the C South quarterfinals at Hoch Field on Friday night. Both teams moved to 4-5.

“It was nice to get things rolling again,” said White, whose team had lost four straight games and been shut out in the last two. “The defense had some big stops, came up big, and the offensive line, they looked at each other this week and said ‘Hey, we’ve got to pick this up, and get back to the way it was.’ ”

That group found its perfect complement in Malinowski, a hard runner with a nose for the hole.

“The linemen really stepped up this game,” he said. “I wasn’t getting touched until the secondary. It was corners and safeties.”

And they were big yards, too. Malinowski had 142 yards and a touchdown on eight carries by halftime, but his team was in trouble early in the second half. Morse recovered a muffed punt on its first series and cashed in on a 7-yard run by Austin Baltazar (33 carries, 154 yards, two touchdowns), pulling within a point of the Tigers at 13-12 with 5:30 to go in the quarter.

Gardiner needed an answer, and its senior back delivered. He broke a 23-yard run to get to the Morse 41, ran for 12 two plays later and 30 two plays after that for a touchdown and a 19-12 lead with 47.9 seconds left in the quarter.

“It was huge,” Malinowski said of the answer. “Everyone started to feel easier, like it lightened the mood. And people started to play better because they weren’t as nervous.”

Two series later, Gardiner put the game away with a 77-yard drive. Malinowski broke a 64-yard run down to the Morse 9-yard line, and he scored from a yard out two plays later for a 26-12 lead with 5:38 to go.

“It’s a confidence booster, really,” said Malinowski, who broke nine runs of 15 or more yards. “Once I get one, it’s just like ‘I can do it again,’ over and over.”

“He’s the only kid I’ve ever coached that’s been able to take those types of plays 60, 70, 80 yards at a time,” White said. “He’s got great vision. He runs well in this soddy, messy stuff, and boy, he ran hard tonight. I looked over at him at one point and said ‘Are you tired?’ And he said ‘No.’

“He wanted it, and the line wanted him to have it.”

The breakout was déjà vu for Morse coach Jason Darling. Malinowski ran 10 times for 114 yards — including two touchdowns of 44 and 45 yards — in Gardiner’s 13-8 win over the Shipbuilders in last year’s quarterfinals.

“He had our number last year, too,” he said. “Nate’s a good player, Garrett (Maheux’s) a good player, they’ve got a lot of good players over there.”

Malinowski had a feeling this week was going to be one to remember as well.

“I said I was going to get three touchdowns. I don’t know I just felt it,” he said. “But I didn’t expect it to be this big. I was thinking more like last year, because it’s playoffs and I had a big game last year. So I just thought I needed to step it up.”

Malinowski wasn’t the only one making headlines. Junior Sean Michaud, back in uniform for the first time since suffering a wrist injury in Week 2, wasted no time making an impact, hauling in a 94-yard touchdown catch on a wheel route on Gardiner’s second play from scrimmage for a 6-0 lead with 10:53 to go in the first quarter.

“It was a great ball by Noah (Reed). … I looked up and I didn’t see anyone,” said Michaud, who played with a bulky cast on his wrist and bobbled the ball before hauling it in. “It just bounced off my cast and it went up in the air. I got a little worried there. … It feels great. I thought we did a good job of using our playmakers.”

Morse answered with a 14-play, 59-yard drive that was capped by a 1-yard run by Baltazar to make it 6-6. Gardiner took the lead back on a 74-yard run by Malinowski, and Baltazar brought Morse within a point on his second scoring run midway through the third.

“He’s been amazing all season long,” Darling said. “He deserves everything he gets, because he’s the hardest-working kid.”

Drew Bonifant – 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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