Football Falls to Wesleyan on Late Penalty



By Stephen Etna

Saturday, Sept. 20, was in many ways a new era for the Middlebury football program. Following the departure of two-time NESCAC Offensive Player of the Year McCallum Foote ’14 and multiple other players at skill positions – including offensive stalwarts in the pairing of All-NESCAC Tight End Billy Sadik-Khan ’14 and running back Matt Rea ’14 – to graduation, the team inevitably had to move on. In their first opportunity to do so this weekend, the Panthers were unable to capitalize on a fourth-quarter comeback as they fell at home to Wesleyan by a score of 22-14. 

Leading the Panther offense at quarterback, having seized the open quarterback position during training camp, Matt Milano ’16 made his first start at quarterback for the Panthers against the highly touted Wesleyan Cardinals.

Following a scoreless first quarter in which the teams traded possession, the game opened up less than a minute into the second quarter when Wesleyan receiver Jay Fabien capped off a 66 yard pitch and catch with a devastating spin move, scoring a touchdown down the left sideline off of a deep throw from quarterback Jesse Warren. 

Middlebury would take the following kickoff for a touchback, setting up Middlebury on their own 20. Following a hard Drew Jacobs ’18 run on first down, Milano and the Middlebury offense found a nice groove. Milano found receiver Grant Luna ’17 repeatedly underneath, allowing the athletic Luna to gash the Wesleyan defense on yards after the catch. 

Only a minute and fifty-seven seconds after taking possession of the ball, the Panthers drove the length of the field with Milano finding his favorite target Luna on a crossing route on the right side of the end-zone. The sophomore showed nice body-control in getting both feet down for good measure on his touchdown reception, giving him three receptions for 40 yards and the score on that drive alone.

The Cardinals, starting near mid-field after a solid kick return, would drive the remaining 51 yards of the field to score before the half, putting the Cardinals up 13-7. Middlebury’s All-NESCAC linebacker Tim Patricia ’16 was able to block the extra point – shooting through a mess of bodies, Patricia somehow deflected the kick, leading to the impaired kick bouncing harmlessly off the goal post.  

Middlebury, receiving at the ball at the beginning of the second half, carried over some momentum in driving the ball up the field against the stout Wesleyan defense. Former Milton Academy standout Jacobs again displayed great patience on the drive in following his blockers in Middlebury’s zone-blocking scheme. Letting Middlebury’s physical interior lineman, including guard Blake Shapskinsky ’15, reach the second level before making his cut, Jacobs ran the play better than any first-year could reasonably be expected to. 

The drive would reach an early end with Wesleyan defensive back Jake Bussani robbing Milano of his second touchdown of the day with a spectacular over-the-shoulder interception. 

However, Wesleyan would be stonewalled on offense with a three-and-out on the ensuing drive, with middle linebackers Patricia and Addison Pierce ’17 denying the Cardinals offense any room to breathe, making consecutive plays at the line of scrimmage to force the punt. 

Trading possession for the rest of the third quarter, disaster struck for Middlebury. Seeing a similar route that previously caught him off guard, Wesleyan defensive back Justin Sanchez jumped Milano’s throw, taking the ensuing pick 41 yards to the end zone for the 

touchdown to put Wesleyan up 19-7. Following another missed extra point, the Cardinals would stay put at 19 points. 

The two picks in the third quarter from Milano and running back Jacobs’ being shaken up caused the Middlebury offense to sputter briefly to open the fourth quarter, and the first few drives proving unproductive. The Middlebury defense, however, galvanized the offense with a goal-line stand following a huge punt return from Wesleyan captain Donnie Cimino. Despite starting on the Middlebury 10, Wesleyan was unable to reach the end zone and settled for a field goal to make their lead 22-7.

On the ensuing drive, Milano rebounded, finding Luna again underneath for 25 yards before finding the agile Ryan Rizzo ’17 for a nine-yard touchdown strike to cap off a 10-play, 64-yard drive and make the score 22-14, late in the fourth quarter. 

With the game now only one possession and the Middlebury offense executing at a high level, a comeback now seemed inevitable. 

True to its form all day, the Middlebury defense did more than its part following the kickoff, forcing a three and out, punctuated by a third-down sack from defensive end Jake Clapp ’16. 

With Wesleyan pinned deep in their own territory for the punt, a good return would have given the Middlebury offense more than a fighting chance of equalizing the score and forcing overtime. 

However, a heartbreaking run into the punter penalty flag gave the Cardinals a first down with only minutes left on the clock. Middlebury, with no timeouts, could do nothing as Wesleyan took a knee to drain the clock to zero.

While the loss was painful, Middlebury should go into next week’s game against Colby feeling confident about the future of their young team, particularly with respect to their defensive play. Wesleyan, perhaps the premier offensive team in the NESCAC, looked uncomfortable all day against the stout Panther defense. 

Gil Araujo ’16 played a great ballgame at the three-technique defensive tackle spot, maintaining gap control when needed to free up the talented linebackers behind him, but more impressively showing great quickness in being an agitator up front. Araujo and linemate Clapp were in the Wesleyan backfield seemingly all afternoon, limiting the potent Wesleyan running game to less than yards per carry. 

Similarly, the Middlebury defensive backs played a fine ballgame, especially when coming up in run support. The group was anchored by the play of free safety Matt Benedict ’15, who led all players in tackles. Corner Nate Leedy ’17 proved himself to be worthy of his reputation as one of the NESCAC’s best at the position, playing a physical bump and run style defense against the Wesleyan receivers and absolutely punishing a Wesleyan receiver who had the misfortune of going over the middle on him near the end of the first half.  

On offense, Milano made a fine first start at the quarterback position, being thrown into the fire against a strong defense and showing a great rapport with receiver Luna. 

On the offensive line, right tackle Danny Finta ’15 proved himself worthy of a starting spot, largely neutralizing Nik Powers, Wesleyan’s 6’7” 260-pound All-NESCAC defensive end. Finta battled Powers all day, taking any opportunity to both agitate and drive his opponent into the ground- resulting in a visibly frustrated the Weselyan defensive end.

Perhaps the top highlight for Middlebury, however, was the play of first-year running back Jacobs, whose feel for the position was apparent throughout the game as he brought a level of athleticism that has not been seen in the Panther backfield in years. Jacobs kept the Wesleyan linebacking corps on their heels with his downfield vision and knack for making significant yardage out of nothing. 

Particularly given the shortened length of the NESCAC season, a loss is far from ideal for the Panthers football squad, but the team played the game with an impressive physical presence  that should worry future opponents.

Middlebury travels to Colby this Saturday, Sept. 27 to face off with the Mules. Colby, 32-7 losers to NESCAC contender Trinity this past weekend, will provide a litmus test for the Panthers as they aim to show that they can contend for the conference title again this year.

With one loss already to their record, the Panthers cannot afford another on their quest for the NESCAC crown.

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