The WRMC Sports play-by-play broadcast of key moments from Saturday’s game is hyperlinked throughout the article below.
With the game tied at 10 at the beginning of the fourth quarter, Middlebury needed someone — anyone — to make a play. After opening the first quarter with a quick-strike 10-point lead, there had been overthrows, dropped touchdowns — both offensively and defensively — and botched backfield exchanges. Very little had gone as planned for the Panthers, whose 10-point lead had evaporated over two deflating quarters. Colby, which entered the game 1-0 after a 31-8 evisceration of Williams the week before, had possession of the football to start the game’s final frame, looking to take its first lead of the afternoon. The Mules had outgained Middlebury 204-165 over the game’s interquartile range, tying the game in the process and, if you believe in such phenomena, seizing all momentum from the Panthers.
And then, in the span of time it took Colby quarterback Justin Ciero, who had been stellar to that point, to make an ill-advised throw, the Mules’ momentum, the near-capacity crowd’s rising anxiety, and, most crucially, the tie all evaporated.
On third-and-11 from his own nine-yard line Ciero dropped back to pass and, after scanning for an open receiver over the middle of the field made a twisting throw across his body to the far sideline. Sitting on the route, senior linebacker Matt Crimmins ’14 stepped in front of Ciero’s intended target, plucked the ball out of the air and rumbled 15 yards into the end zone, giving the Panthers a touchdown lead that seemed to count more on the field than it did on the scoreboard.
A demoralized Colby team never threatened again and Middlebury tacked on a pair of scoring drives for good measure to seal the victory, moving them into a four-way tie atop the NESCAC at 2-0.
“The defense won the game for us, just in terms of how they kept Colby at bay,” said head coach Bob Ritter. “When we have our miscue and don’t get in the end zone to go up 17-10, that’s when it starts to get worrisome. So when Matt Crimmins came up with the interception for the touchdown it released a little bit of pressure from everybody and let us play more with the flow than we had earlier.”
For the second straight week and 13th time in 17 career games, McCallum Foote ’14 eclipsed the 300-yard mark on Saturday, adding two touchdown passes, while drops deprived him at least two more. Defensively, first-year cornerback Nate Leedy ’17 shone, totaling 10 tackles — seven solo — two tackles for a loss and a pass breakup. Linebackers Jake Clapp ’16 and Tim Patricia ’16 had similarly dominant performances, combining to make 11 tackles and each registering a sack of the elusive Ciero.
Middlebury was effective in all three phases of the game early, limiting Colby to just one first down on the Mules’ first three drives while leading scoring drives of their own that netted a 33-yard Mike Dola ’15 field goal and a touchdown pass from Foote to Billy Sadik-Khan ’14, who leads the NESCAC in receptions (18) and touchdown catches (three) from his hybrid tight end position. On the first play of the game, Foote connected with Matt Minno ’16 for a 37-yard gain.
“We game-planned that all week because their corners sit on the bootleg,” Minno said. “It was a great ball by Mac. We faked the run to the left and then we had everyone crossing under and I’m running deep. It was great to start the game with a 30-yard pick up.”
On the next offensive possession, Foote found Sadik-Khan running down the seam for the touchdown and a 10-point lead.
Colby responded early in the second quarter, as Ciero found his dynamic wide receiver Luke Duncklee for a seven-yard touchdown throw and catch as Duncklee ran a zone-breaker across the face of the formation, sneaking inside the pylon for the score. Senior strong safety Jared Onouye ’14 had a chance to kill the drive and give his team a commanding three-score lead, but the California native dropped a sure pick-six, giving the Mules new life.
The Panthers missed another scoring opportunity — which became one of the game’s central narratives — on the ensuing drive. Foote led a methodical 11-play drive into Mules territory. Then on a fourth-and-six from the Colby 28-yard line, Foote threw a rocket, leading Sadik-Khan into a hole in the defense where his tight end made a diving catch for the first down. After a botched exchange in the backfield, Foote targeted Minno on third-and-12, but the quarterback and his receiver were crossed up and the pass fell incomplete. Rather than attempt a 35-yard field goal, head coach Bob Ritter elected to go for it. This time, with a first-year cornerback in coverage, Foote threw a back-shoulder throw that Minno high-pointed but could not bring down for the completion, resulting in a turnover on downs.
The Mules then tied the game on their opening drive of the second half, capping off a 14-play, 65-yard drive with a 27-yard field goal, knotting the game at 10.
The Panthers had an opportunity to retake the lead on the subsequent possession, but again left points on the field.
After Matt Rea ’14 picked up 13 straight yards on three plays, first-year running back Joey Zelkowitz ’17 checked in to the game and made an immediate impact, catching passes on back-to-back plays for 13 and 21 yards, respectively. After an incompletion, Foote went back to Zelkowitz, who picked up 13 more yards, setting up first-and-goal from the Colby six-yard line. Following a pair of incompletions, Foote found Brendan Rankowitz ’15 cutting across the formation for an apparent touchdown. Instead, Rankowitz was marked out of bounds inches short of the end zone, leading to a fourth-and-goal situation. After a Colby timeout, Ritter drew up a play-action play out of a jumbo package, isolating a wide-open Clapp in the end zone. Foote’s pass, however, glanced off of Clapp’s hands for a turnover on downs.
“It’s really a goal line run formation,” Ritter said. “The decision to throw it there — Colby had put all 11 guys in the box and were going all out. We felt comfortable with Mac out on the edge and Jake has caught that ball 50 times in the past three weeks.”
Despite the turnover, Middlebury held the field position advantage. On third-and-seven from their own three yard-line, the Mules drew up a go-route for Duncklee, matched up against Leedy in single coverage with no safety help.
“Coach Mandigo had been telling me all week, ‘You’re a first-year, Duncklee is their best guy, they’re definitely going to test you on the fade ball,’” Leedy said. “So it’s third-and-seven, and this was the one of the first times it was just me and him and no one else out there, so I figured it was coming. Based on his alignment—he was lined up inside, which gave them a much better chance to throw it to the sideline—I was anticipating that and I got a good [jam] on him, turn and ran with him and made a play.”
Despite great field position following the ensuing punt, the Panthers could not break the tie, punting the ball back to Colby, inadvertently setting the stage for Crimmins’ game-defining play.
Following Crimmins’ interception return, the Mules mounted one final successful drive, taking the ball 55 yards on seven plays before facing a fourth-and-six from the Middlebury 20-yard line. Colby unsuccessfully attempted to convert a 38-yard field goal and Middlebury took over at the 20-yard line. On the second play from scrimmage, the Panthers broke the game open as Foote found a streaking Minno who eluded one defender before sprinting 77 yards, untouched, into the end zone.
“That is one of our favorite plays versus man,” Ritter said. “It was more of a move-the-chains type of play and we caught them in man and the route adjustment is to stay on the run, which was the exciting part because we haven’t seen much man, so Mac and Matt have not been in that situation very much live. Matt did a great job of continuing the route and Mac recognized him and led him.
“There was no safety there, which is usually a tell that it’s man coverage,” Minno said. “I felt the corner on my back and kept running. Luckily Mac and I were on the same page and he hit me in stride. Coach Ritter preaches getting north-to-south every time you catch the ball, so basically I turned and took off running.”
Minno recorded five catches for 141 yards and a touchdown. The sophomore receiver leads the NESCAC, averaging 106.5 yards per game.
Middlebury eliminated any chance of a Colby comeback minutes later, sapping the clock with a nine-play drive that took nearly five minutes, concluding with a 27-yard Dola field goal, creating the final score line — a 17-point Middlebury victory.
The Panthers travel to Amherst this weekend in a matchup of 2-0 teams. Middlebury beat the Lord Jeffs 24-3 last season.