In front of a capacity crowd on alumni weekend at Youngman Field on Saturday, Oct. 20, the football team overcame a slow start to improve to 5-0 with a 38-23 win over Bates (2-3). There were plenty of fireworks in the team’s narrowest win of the season thus far, and none bigger than wide receiver Zach Driscoll 13’s record breaking performance.
Driscoll, who entered the game with 128 career receptions, needed 10 catches to break the all-time Middlebury receptions record, previously held by A.J. Husband ’98. On the Panthers’ first possession of the third quarter, the Concord, Mass. native did just that, hauling in his 10th reception of the game and the 38th of his brilliant career, on a six-yard pass from quarterback Mac Foote ’14. Driscoll, who was named NESCAC Player of the Week following a 12-catch, 250-yard, three-touchdown performance in Middlebury’s 40-13 win over Williams the week previously, followed that with a career high 15 catches for 203 yards and two touchdowns. Driscoll also broke the Middlebury single season record for touchdown catches with his 10th and 11th scores of the season, eclipsing the previous mark of nine, held jointly by Phil Pope ’71, Beau Coash ’81 and Andrew Varney ’83.
“I like being as involved [in the offense] as possible,” said Driscoll of his performance. “I’ll take hits if it means making a play. We’ve been through enough pain and suffering over the past three years … the records and stuff are great … but it’s all about the game. I’d trade all the records for 8-0 any day.”
In the early going, however, it was running back Remi Ashkar ’13 and the Middlebury rushing attack that got the offense in rhythm. Ashkar rushed for 69 yards in the first half, 45 of which came in the first quarter. The 5’11’’, 205-pound running back set the tone early, converting on a fourth-and-one on the team’s opening drive, lowering his shoulder and picking up seven yards on the play.
“Our offensive line did a great job of getting some push up front to allow [Ashkar] that initial burst,” said head coach Bob Ritter, “and then he did a really nice job of picking and finding some open space.”
“Fourth-and-one plays are obviously very crucial for keeping the drive alive,” Ashkar said. “My mentality going into these types of plays is to see where the offensive line sets up its blocks, then find the hole and burst through it.”
The team, however, could not capitalize on its early success running the ball as Foote and Driscoll were a step out of sync. Foote overthrew his top receiver twice with Driscoll running free behind the defense. Then, on the 11th play of the drive from the Bates 21-yard line, targeting Driscoll once again, Foote was intercepted in the end zone.
“In the type of offense that we run there’s going to be some overthrows, some incompletions … that’s part of it,” Ritter said. “It’s important that you don’t overreact one way or the other to some of those things. Certainly [Foote] finds a rhythm and is very accurate when it’s all said and done. We don’t change things or overreact to things at the start … We just try to stay consistent with what we’re doing offensively.”
Already trailing 7-0 after allowing the first opening drive touchdown of the season, the Middlebury defense found an answer to the Bobcats’ triple option offense on the second series, forcing Bates to punt after picking up just one first down.
Taking the field for the second time with the ball at the Middlebury 37-yard line, the offense leaned again on Ashkar who had four of the first five touches on the drive, accounting for 32 yards. After a Middlebury personal foul backed the Panthers up to the Bates 35-yard line, Foote finally connected with Driscoll, lofting a high-arching ball down the field placed perfectly over the cornerback in underneath coverage and before the safety in zone coverage could get to the ball. Driscoll caught the ball in stride, stepped out of the grasp of the lunging safety and tight-roped his way into the end zone against the sideline, tying the game and breaking the single season touchdown record.
“It was a press corner look so they were in Cover Two,” explained Driscoll. “I knew that corner would try to hold the flat and get a jam on me and use [his] outside leverage. [Foote] and I had talked during the week that if they bring that guy down with outside leverage — [normally] I’m supposed to run an out on that play and get the [first down] — but when I have that outside leverage we worked on me jab stepping him [to the] outside and getting on the inside. We had practiced that enough times this week that [Foote] and I were right on the same page. He threw a perfect ball right over that defender and I was there.”
The defense forced a punt after conceding just one first down again on the ensuing Bates drive as Bobcats head coach Mark Harriman elected to punt facing fourth-and-one from the Middlebury 38-yard line.
The Panthers failed to take advantage of the Bobcats conservative play calling as their third drive of the game stalled at the Middlebury 47-yard line. The visitors fared no better, however, as a 13-yard reception by first-year wideout Harrison Murphy at midfield was negated by offensive pass interference, creating second-and-23 for the Bobcats at their own 22-yard line; three plays later, Bates was punting again.
After a second personal foul penalty — this one called against the sideline on the punt — pushed the Panthers inside their 20-yard line, the offense began to operate in earnest as Foote engineered a nine-play, 84-yard touchdown drive in three minutes. Foote found four different receivers on the drive, which culminated in a two-yard touchdown pass to first-year receiver Harrison Goodkind ’16, the first of his Middlebury career.
The Bobcats responded in kind, however, using 4:24 of clock on a touchdown drive of their own as quarterback Trevor Smith and running back Patrick George ran the triple option with clinical precision. The play of the drive came on third-and-10 from the Bates 40-yard line when Smith appeared to be sacked in the backfield. Instead, the dual threat quarterback bounced off the tackle, changed direction and, throwing across his body, found Murphy for a 17-yard gain. George, meanwhile, converted a crucial third-and-two from the Middlebury 35-yard line, ripping off a 21-yard run — the longest of the game for either team. Three plays later, on third-and-10, Smith found wide receiver Shawn Doherty open in the flat. Doherty promptly cut back across the field, against the flow of the defense into the end zone. It was the first of two touchdowns for the slot wide receiver, who led Bates with five catches for 50 yards in addition to the pair of scores.
The Panthers found a spark on the subsequent kickoff as Brendan Rankowitz ’15 returned the ball 26 yards to the Middlebury 38-yard line. With good starting field position, the Panthers needed just 2:06 to reclaim the lead as Foote found tight end Billy Chapman ’13 from 11 yards out to give Middlebury a 21-14 lead with 1:16 remaining in the first half.
As it turned out, the offense scored too quickly as Bates marched 55 yards on 11 plays before attempting a 27-yard field goal with three seconds remaining, which kicker Charlie Donahue converted to cut the Bobcats’ deficit to four at the half.
That was as close as the Bobcats would come, however, as Middlebury opened the second half with two touchdowns in 5:29, extending the lead to 35-17. On the opening kickoff of the second half, Rankowitz found a seam on the left side of his blockers, returning the ball 38 yards to the Middlebury 45-yard line. On second-and-two from the Bates 16-yard line, Foote connected again with Chapman in the back of the end zone, extending the Middlebury lead to 11.
The Panthers then caught a break as kicker Jake Feury ’16’s short kickoff was muffed at the 20-yard line and unintentionally booted forward to the 40-yard line where Feury fell on the ball. On the second play from scrimmage, Foote hit Driscoll for a six-yard catch over the middle, breaking the record previously set by Husband in 1998. Driscoll then caught the very next pass and two more on the drive, including a two-yard touchdown catch.
Despite leading by 18 with 9:31 left in the third quarter and holding the Bobcats without a score the remainder of the quarter, Middlebury was unable to put Bates away. On the third play of the fourth quarter Foote was intercepted for the second time of the game, this time on an errant throw over the middle. For the first time in the game, the Bobcats were able to cash in on a Middlebury mistake as Smith capped of a six-play 47-yard drive with a 30-yard completion to Doherty, who scampered past the Middlebury defense and into the end zone.
After a Middlebury three-and-out it appeared Bates might have an avenue back into the game. But with 10:13 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Panthers’ defense finally made a play. On first-and-10 from the Bates 39-yard line, Smith took a deep shot on a double move. Sophomore cornerback Joel Blockowicz ’15, who made six tackles and broke up two more passes, bit on the fake, but recovered excellently to make a tremendous play on the ball in the air, leaping up to make the interception.
The game appeared over, particularly when Rankowitz made a spectacular leaping grab at the two-yard line on a jump ball for a 43-yar gain. Instead, the Panthers fumbled on first-and-goal, fortunately recovered by Foote, which set up a 27-yard field goal for a 15-point lead. Feury converted the kick, improving to three for five on the season and extending the Middlebury lead to 38-23.
Still trailing by just two scores, Bates failed on three consecutive passing plays and elected to punt the ball back to the Panthers who successfully ran out the clock.
The game was particularly successful for the Middlebury backfield as Ashkar finished the game with 106 rushing yards — the first time he has broken the century mark on the ground this season. Foote, meanwhile, finished the game with 436 yards passing and five touchdowns, albeit accompanied by two interceptions, and was awarded the NESCAC Player of the Week award as a result, his second of the season.The Panthers’ offensive line, meanwhile, received some much deserved recognition as the unit was named to the D3 Football Team of the Week. For the third time in five games, the offensive line did not allow a sack and this time was able to spring Ashkar for long gains in between, as well.
Defensively, the captain of the unit John Wiet ’13 led the way with 15 total tackles along with Matthew Beniedict ’13, while first-year middle linebacker Tim Patricia ’16 managed 12 tackles including one for a loss and a pass break up, which he nearly intercepted.
All in all it was an up-and-down performance for the defense, which played considerably better in the second half, allowing just six points. The team was uncharacteristically soft against the run, however, allowing 219 rushing yards at 4.6 yards per carry.
The defense will have to make adjustments as it plans for Trinity (5-0). The Bantams boast the NESCAC’s top rushing game, averaging nearly 300 yards per game at a 5.3 yards per carry clip. The game features the final remaining undefeated teams in the conference and will most likely determine the winner of the NESCAC championship.
“It’s always a big game when we play Trinity,” Ritter said. “They’re awfully tough period, but they’re particularly tough at home. I told our guys that this is a great opportunity — it’s really exciting to go down there and compete and we’ll be ready.”
“If we can be sharp in practice, show a lot of energy, get to our spots and run our routes, we’ll be very hard to stop,” Driscoll said.