Defense Lifts Football Team Past Ephs

by / football (0) in Sports /
Matt Rea ’14 breaks the tackle of a diving Ephs defender as he bounds for a 25-yard run on the Panthers game-winning drive. The Panthers improved to 3-1 with the win. (Anthea von Viragh)

 

First-year running back Joey Zelkowitz ’17 scored from eight yards out with 4:03 remaining to give Middlebury a seven-point lead and the Panthers rode the play of their defense to a 21-14 victory over Williams. Zelkowitz finished with two touchdowns — one on the ground and one through the air — and 135 yards of total offense, earning him NESCAC Offensive Player of the Week honors for the first time in his career. On the defensive side of the ball, Will Bain ’14 also earned Defensive Player of Week distinctions for the first time, as the junior cornerback totaled 16 tackles, including at least one on each of the Ephs’ first eight drives.

“Our coaches game-planned well and put our defense in the best position to make plays knowing that Williams was going to look to test the perimeter of our defense,” Bain said.

“Sometimes you take it for granted when corners are making a lot of tackles, but when they’re not making those tackles they’re usually going for big plays,” said head coach Bob Ritter.

The Panthers continued their streak of strong starts, scoring points on their opening drive for the fourth time in as many games as McCallum Foote ’14 found wide receiver Trevor Wheeler ’15 down the seam for a 25-yard score on third-and-three from the Ephs’ 25-yard line. It was Wheeler’s second catch of the drive, as the oft-injured, but explosive junior converted a crucial third-and-15 from the Middlebury 26-yard line on a similar play, hauling in a Foote fastball over the middle for a 28-yard completion. Foote, who was erratic with his arm again, made two crucial plays with his legs on the opening drive, scrambling on third-and-six from the Williams 36-yard line for a pick up of five yards. Then, on fourth-and-one, Foote escaped from the pocket again, and scampered out of a tackle to the sideline for another five-yard gain and a Middlebury first down. Three plays later Foote hit Wheeler for the first touchdown reception of the junior’s career.

“Wheeler gives us a weapon that we don’t have,” Ritter said. “He’s very fast, very athletic and on the third-and-15, made a great play on the linebacker to get free and get back into the route. So he can really stretch the field for us.”

Behind junior quarterback Adam Marske, the Ephs took their first drive of the game 60 yards on 12 plays before stalling at the Middlebury 20-yard line. First-team All-NESCAC kicker Joe Mallock, who nailed a 46-yard field goal the week before, could not cash in, pushing the 37-yard attempt wide right.

Neither offense was productive for the remainder of the quarter, combining to gain just 29 yards on the subsequent four possessions, including three straight three-and-outs.

Following the touchdown drive, the highlight of the first half for Middlebury was specialist Mike Dola ’15’s booming, 76-yard punt that was nearly downed inside the 10-yard line, but rolled into the end zone for a touchback and a still-incredible 56-yard net.

Williams regained its form first, as Marske, who had been benched for the previous two games due to his poor performance, strung together the Ephs’ first scoring drive. The senior quarterback converted a crucial third-and-six with a 21-yard strike to his receiver Darrias Sime and again on fourth-and-two with a 15-yard scramble to the Middlebury 12-yard line. Four straight runs later, the Ephs reached the end zone, as second-string tailback Marco Hernandez beat one Middlebury defender off the left tackle, finding pay dirt from a yard out. Mallock, however, pushed the point after try wide right, the previous miss still lingering in his head and Middlebury maintained a 7-6 lead.

The Ephs’ scoring drive appeared to spark the Panthers as Foote completed five of six passes on the next drive, including a 20-yard completion to tight end Billy Sadik-Khan ’14, who shed his defender and picked up half the yardage after the catch. Three plays later, Foote found Zelkowitz on a swing pass, which the diminutive first-year turned up field, knifing through a pair of Williams defenders en route to a 47-yard gain down to the 10-yard line.

“I always set people up to make them miss either by using my blocks or a little shake or something,” Zelkowitz said of the highlight-reel play.

Then, on second-and-goal, Foote found his dynamic back again on a well-designed screen pass and Zelkowitz zipped his way into the end zone to give the Panthers — who bookended the half with touchdown drives — a 14-6 lead.

Williams demonstrated an impressive display of the two-minute drill, driving 57 yards on 11 plays in just 1:34, but it was ultimately for naught, as Mallock missed another field goal wide right — this time from 37-yards out — to end the first half.

The Middlebury defense forced a three-and-out to begin the second half, giving the offense a chance to take a commanding two-score lead. Despite great starting field position and a Foote-to-Wheeler 14-yard completion, Middlebury failed to come away with points as Foote threw his eighth interception of the season on a clear miscommunication with his intended receiver.

Once again, the Ephs found their footing first on offense, regaining possession at the halfway mark of the third quarter and orchestrating a 12-play 80-yard touchdown drive that ate 6:40 of clock. On the critical play, Marske found his tight end Alex Way from the three-yard line and then went back to the well on the two-point conversion, finding Way to tie the game at 14 with under a minute remaining in the third quarter.

Middlebury appeared to be on its way to retaking the lead on the opening drive of the fourth quarter, but a 21-yard Zelkowitz catch-and-run was negated by a holding penalty and the Panthers were forced to punt. The defense recovered by forcing a three-and-out. Outside linebacker Matt Crimmins ’14 provided the crucial play — as he did time and time again in the second half — blitzing off the edge and batting down Marske’s pass.

The Middlebury offense continued to struggle, earning just one first down on a 14-yard completion to running back Matt Rea ’14 before punting once again on.

Rea, however, would take matters into his own hands on the ensuing Panther drive, carrying the ball three times for 31 yards, including a frantic, 25-yard scamper up the middle on a key third-down conversion. The Panthers were not out of the woods, however. After an incompletion on third-and-three from the Ephs’ 40-yard line, Ritter elected to go for it on fourth down, and the offense responded as Foote hit a sliding Matt Minno ’14 on an inside slant for a 10-yard gain and a first down. Foote targeted Minno on the ensuing play, throwing a go-ball for his 6’3’’ receiver in single coverage. The defender in coverage grabbed Minno, drawing a flag for pass interference. The team turned back to Zelkowitz who carried the ball out of the backfield on consecutive plays for seven and eight yards, respectively, the latter of which into the end zone on a draw play behind a road-grading offensive line.

“The line opened up a huge hole which made it pretty easy for me,” he said of the run.

Williams squandered two final opportunities to tie the game, going three-and-out on the next drive before running out of clock on the game’s final possession. Crimmins featured heavily in the Ephs’ struggles, batting down another Marske throw before meeting teammate Jack Crowell ’14 at the quarterback for his second sack of the game on the final drive.

“We were trying to get Crimmins off the edge because we thought he could give them  fits, and he played exceptionally,” Ritter said.

Crimmins totaled seven tackles, trailing only Bain (16) and Tim Patricia ’16 (10), as well as 1.5 sacks and two break ups. Offensively, the ground game led the way as Rea gained 74 yards on 17 carries and Zelkowitz picked up 37 yards on just seven carries and led the team with six receptions for 67 yards. Foote, meanwhile, completed 20 of 37 passes for 247 yards and two touchdowns and the lone intercetpion.

With the victory Middlebury improved to 3-1 and has won 10 of its past 12 games dating back to last season. Williams, meanwhile, dropped to 0-4 for the first time since 1947. The Panthers travel this weekend to Lewiston, Maine where they face Bates (2-2).