Football Downs Tufts, Finishes Season 7-1

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Quarterback Mac Foote ’14 rolls to his right with great protection from his offensive line. Foote was sacked just five times this season — the fewest in the NESCAC. (Campus/Jiayi Zhu)

For the 21 seniors playing in their final collegiate game, Saturday’s 35-13 win over Tufts (0-8) was an unforgettable finish to a historic season. The game will be remembered for the records that were broken — wide receiver Zach Driscoll ’13 broke both the NESCAC single season receptions record as well as the conference’s single season touchdown record while quarterback Mac Foote ’14 surpassed Donnie McKillop’s ’10 single season NESCAC passing-yards mark — and for the highlight-reel plays made by a number of seniors. Driscoll, Josh Amster ’13 and tri-captain Billy Chapman ’13 all caught touchdown passes in their final game — with Chapman’s coming on what was, for all intents and purposes, Middlebury’s final offensive play of the season. Defensive captain John Wiet ’13, meanwhile, made the play of the year, recovering a fumble at the Middlebury 10-yard line and rumbling 65 yards before lateraling the ball while being tackled to defensive back Jared Onouye ’14 who took it the final 25 yards for the touchdown, cementing a 7-1 season for the Panthers.

Middlebury’s day fell just short of perfect as Trinity, who trailed much of the day at Wesleyan, forged an improbable comeback, ultimately winning in overtime, thereby completing an unbeaten season and ending Middlebury’s hopes at a share of the NESCAC title.

Tufts, who entered the game against Middlebury having lost 22 consecutive games, jumped out to an early lead, taking the opening drive of the game 65 yards on seven plays for a touchdown as John Dodds connected with Dylan Haas from 10 yards out. The score was set up by a 29-yard run on an end around from wide receiver Mike Howell.

Middlebury, which has struggled with slow starts all season long, quickly gave the ball back to the Jumbos, punting after picking up just one first down.

The Jumbos threatened to score again on the second drive, but on third-and-five from the Middlebury 25-yard line, Dodds’s pass intended for Haas was intercepted by defensive back Joel Blockowicz ’15 — his third pick of the season.

Foote and the offense found their rhythm on the second drive, as the NESCAC’s top passer accounted for all 67 yards on the drive. Middlebury was aided by a key pass interference call on third-and-short to pick up a first down in Jumbos territory. Foote then hit Driscoll for gains of 19 and 14 yards, the latter coming on a post route in the middle of the end zone to tie the game.

After the Panthers forced a turnover on downs deep in their own territory, Foote made his only mistake of the half, forcing a ball into coverage that was deflected into the secondary and intercepted. After playing bend-but-don’t-break defense on the Jumbos’ previous two drives, the Panther defense made its first stand of the game, stuffing a third-and-one run as Tim Patricia ’16 made one his team-leading 10 tackles.

With 2:25 remaining in the first half Foote orchestrated a masterful drive, completing eight of nine passes covering 79 yards and a score in just 1:56. Driscoll caught three passes including a one-yard touchdown reception, breaking both records on the possession. On the touchdown play, Driscoll lined up on the far side of the field behind first-year wideout Matt Minno ’16 in what appeared to be a power run formation. Pre-snap, however, Driscoll came in motion into the slot before darting back towards the sideline as the ball was snapped and hauling in a low pass, perfectly placed by Foote.

“A lot of teams like to go man-to-man at the goal line, so we thought if we could get in motion, if they were in man we’d see it,” Driscoll said. “Meanwhile, I’d go in motion, keep carrying [my defender inside] and get his hips turned and then pop back out.”

Foote finished the half 23-32 from the air for 220 yards and two touchdowns in what was his most impressive half of the season.

“I felt really good in the beginning of the game,” Foote said. “They were only rushing three so it gave me a lot of time to find guys and I was able to hit some underneath routes.”

Middlebury extended its lead shortly after the break. Following stalled drives for both teams, Foote led a nine-play, 42-yard drive as much with his feet as with his arm. Facing third-and-nine from the Tufts 18-yard line, Foote escaped from a collapsing pocket, scampering to the sideline and absorbing a hit for a six-yard gain. On the next play — a fourth-and-three — Foote took off for the second time, lowering his helmet at the first down marker and falling forward for a crucial first down. After missing a wide-open Amster in the end zone on a sure touchdown pass, Foote connected with Amster on the next play, threading the needle between two Jumbos defenders in the back of the end zone.

Having conceded 21 straight points, the visitors responded, driving almost 70 yards in just over two minutes to cut the lead to eight. On the ensuing point after try, however, Patricia broke through the middle of the line, extending to block the kick.

Leading now by just one score, the Panthers worked their way down field as running back Remi Ashkar ’13 carried the ball four times for 26 yards on the drive. Two straight incompletions following a four-yard run from running back Matt Rhea ’14, however, brought on Jake Feury ’16 and the kicking team to attempt a 25-yard field goal. Middlebury failed to extend its lead, however, as Tufts first-year linebacker Matt McCormack broke through the line of scrimmage and blocked Feury’s low line drive kick.

The Jumbos and Panthers traded possessions with neither team able to pick up more than two first downs. Facing fourth-and-six from the Jumbos’ 39-yard line, Driscoll dropped an end-over-end punt at the five-yard line, which hopped into the arms of Dan Kenerson ’13 inside the one-yard line.

Undaunted, Tufts converted a third-and-long from the shadow of its own end zone, triggering three straight first down plays. Dodds and the Jumbos offense took 13 plays to go 89 yards into the Middlebury red zone, where it all went wrong for Tufts — as things tend to do during a 22-game losing streak — as Dodds and running back Jeff Weaver botched the exchange on a handoff, leading to a bouncing ball that was scooped up by Wiet.

“It was a quarterback draw and [Matt Crimmins ’14] forced the fumble and it squirted into the backfield where I happened to be,” Wiet said.

At his own 10-yard line, with nothing but daylight in front of him, Wiet took off, racing 65 yards before being dragged down by Tufts tight end Nick Kenyon. Alertly, albeit dangerously, Wiet twisted before hitting the ground and pitched the ball to Onouye who hopped over Kenyon and his fallen teammate and ran the final 25 yards for the score, sending the sideline and an enthusiastic crowd at Youngman Field into a frenzy.

“[Onouye] was attempting to block for me and [Kenyon] outran him,” Wiet said, “but I heard him off to my left saying, ‘Here to your left! Here to your left!’”

Trailing on the play, Onouye accurately determined that Kenyon was going to catch Wiet before he reached the end zone.

“I realized that [Wiet] was running out of gas,” Onouye said. “I moved to the left [which gave Kenyon] a chance, but I knew he’d pitch it to me because I’d been calling for it for a while and I knew he wanted the defense to score. After we scored I ran up to him and we just hugged each other but [we] were so tired that we didn’t actually say anything. We just went over to the sideline and called for water.”

Elated fans also wondered at Wiet’s decision to lateral the football.

“I had a few people come up to me after the play and ask me if [Wiet] was a rugby player because of his heads up play,” Chapman said. “That’s something I’ll never forget.”

The Tufts offense never recovered. Dodds threw three consecutive incompletions and the Jumbos punted the ball away on the next possession.

Middlebury added one final touchdown despite Rhea’s best attempts to run out the remainder of the clock as he carried the ball on eight of the first nine plays on the next drive for 36 yards. On third-and-eight, from the Tufts 43-yard line and just over two minutes remaining, however, Foote went to the air, finding Chapman down field for first down yardage. Chapman, sensing that it might be the final play of his career, broke a tackle and outran another defender to the pylon for the clinching score.

Fittingly, Chapman began his career with a very similar play.

“My freshman year, [in the] first game I played, we were up 38-0 against Colby — and I know [coach] Ritter was probably kicking himself — but we ran a play right down the middle and I caught a touchdown on a catch-and-run for 60 yards or so,” he said. “So this [time], as I was running, I thought, this isn’t really the best play for me to catch a ball. But he came back to me and one guy bounced off me and I thought ‘Alright, I can make a play here,’ so I ran for the corner of the end zone.”

Chapman’s touchdown proved to be the final offensive play of the season for the Panthers, save one final kneel down. The Panthers finished the season 7-1 for the first time since 2007 and made great strides both on offense and defense where they ranked second and third in scoring offense and scoring defense, respectively.

“It was a year of timely defense — we came up with stops [and] turnovers when we needed them,” said Wiet. “That final play was just a perfect example of the change our defense has made from last year to this year. We were opportunistic, we took advantage of other [teams’] mistakes, we caused turnovers and scored some points for our offense as well.”

The Middlebury defense has improved drastically under second-year defensive coordinator Doug Mandigo. The unit will be headlined going forward by Onouye, Blockowicz, who intercepted his third pass of the season Saturday, and safety Matthew Benedict ’15, who finished third on the team with 59 tackles. The strength of the team, however, will be the returning linebackers, including Tim Patricia ’16 who finished second in the conference in tackles and is a frontrunner for NESCAC Rookie of the Year.

On the other side of the ball, Offensive Player of the Year candidate Foote returns for his senior year with a number of rising stars at the wide receiver position including Brendan Rankowitz ’15, Minno and Harrison Goodkind ’16.

The most significant loss for the Panthers will most likely be on both the offensive and defensive line, where Middlebury will lose six starters, three starters on each side of the ball, including tri-captain Ryan Moores ’13. Moores is the leader of a group that allowed just five sacks all season, by far the fewest in the conference.

“They were really unbelievable,” said Foote. “They took pride in what they did. They didn’t ask for a lot of recognition, but they deserve all the credit in the world.”