Football Records First NESCAC Win

By Stephen Etna

After a hard-fought opening-day loss to Wesleyan, the Middlebury football team made the long trek up I-95 to Waterville, Maine for a matchup with the Colby Mules on Saturday, Sept. 27, coming away with both a win and clarity on the subject of their quarterback situation.

In only his second career start, quarterback Matt Milano ’16 delivered a breakout performance reminiscent of his prolific predecessor, garnering NESCAC Offensive Player of the Week honors by completing 22-33 passes for 290 yards and two touchdowns. 

Not allowing the offense to outshine them, the Middlebury defense continued making Sunday morning the worst day of the week for the opposition by sustaining its hard-hitting, physical play, allowing only seven points to Colby.

Following a shaky first drive and subsequent punt from the Middlebury offense, the Middlebury defense forced a quick punt from Colby to give the ball back to Milano. Starting from their own nine yard line, the Middlebury offense executed to perfection. Coming off the sideline, running back Jonathan Hurvitz ’17 put his open-field elusiveness on display on the drive. Darting through open holes with impressive agility and turning the corner on slower linebackers, Hurvitz ran for 27 yards on the drive, keeping the Colby defense off balance. Milano found his go-to target Grant Luna ’17 underneath for three receptions on the drive, before hitting deep threat Matt Minno ’16 over the top of the Mule secondary for a 37-yard strike. Setting up a first and goal, the Panther offense sent in Jacobs to take a goal-line handoff, punching it in from a yard out. 

Taking a 7-0 lead, Middlebury would soon find itself with the ball again courtesy of lights out play from the Panther front seven. Featuring great ball play from defensive ends Jake Clapp ’16 and Jack Crowell ’15 in tandem with middle-linebacker Tim Patricia ’16, Middlebury forced a Colby punt.

Milano and company resumed the rhythm they found on the first drive, driving down the field with ease. First-year running back Drew Jacobs ’18 gashed the Colby defensive front with repeated handoffs up the gut, setting up Milano and Middlebury’s receiving corps to great effect. After a nice string of completions, Milano capped the drive with a 25-yard pitch and catch to Luna to put the Panthers up 14-0. 

Colby, having played perennial power Trinity to a tie through nearly three quarters in week one, would not lie down without a fight. Following the kickoff, Colby would piece together a nice drive against the Panthers defense. Aided by two personal foul flags which gifted the Mules 30 yards, Colby took full advantage, scoring on a two-yard run to make the score 14-7 with 10 minutes left before the half.

After a stop from Zach Faber ’15 forced Colby to punt, the Middlebury offense picked up its solid form from the first quarter. Milano found Trevor Wheeler ’15 with a bomb of a throw for 66 yards, setting up the offense with a first and goal. Showing great athleticism for a converted offensive lineman, senior tight end Brett Harasimowicz ’15 came up big with a diving catch to put the Panthers up 21-7, notching his first career touchdown. 

“At that point, it was a one score game, and we needed to put together a solid drive and score before the half,” Harasimowicz said. “That has historically been a great play for us in the red zone and Milano put the ball in a perfect spot for me to make a play.”

With the Panthers’ sideline energized from a drive spanning 76 yards in a little over a minute, the defense went out and took care of business. With two stops in a row from cornerback Will Bain ’15, including an impressive play against the rush on which Bain snuffed out an outside run for a loss of three yards, the Mules again ceded possession to the Middlebury Panthers on a three-and-out.

With only a little over two minutes remaining in the half, the Middlebury offense showed it also could execute well in its hurry-up offense. Despite facing pressure, Milano fired a 34-yard strike to put the Panthers in field goal range with 3 seconds to go in the half. Despite being iced by Colby, kicker Mike Dola ’15 showed great composure and split the uprights as time expired in the first half to put Middlebury up 24-7. 

With the game in control, Middlebury began to grind the Colby defense as the Panthers began the second half with the ball. Featuring a healthy dose of the bruising running back tandem of Jacobs and John Jackson ’18, the Panthers sat back and let the duo play old-school football behind the offensive line. Milano stepped in when necessary, firing off several third-down throws to wideout Brendan Rankowitz ’15. 

This drive resulted in Middlebury eating up half the clock in the third quarter on 20 plays before another Dola field goal extended the Middlebury lead to 27-7.

Arguably the highlight of the game was the development of Milano. Although only two games into the season and facing a significantly diminished challenge before him in the Colby defense, Milano showed that his decision-making ability is improving on a weekly basis, showing the down-field passing ability that he was missing last week in order to guide the Panther offense on several impressive drives.

The Middlebury offensive line – featuring Jake Lebowitz ’15 making his first start at right guard – also performed admirably, letting the Mules knock down Milano only twice and working hard in run blocking. Behind Lebowitz and company, Middlebury ran the ball nearly 50 times against Colby.

Featuring extensive use of its nickel package against a Mules offense that often put multiple receivers on the field, the Middlebury secondary was impressive. Bain, playing the open field cornerback, is as fast as they come in the NESCAC, and it showed: he led the game in tackles and broke up several passes. Stalwart Matt Benedict ’15 again came up big from the free safety position in run support, notching a tackle for a loss as well. Bruising cornerback Nate Leedy ’17 forced a fumble on another crunching hit and nickelback Dave Elkhatib ’15 performed more than capably in his first significant action of the season. 

Going into a pivotal matchup against Amherst this Saturday, Oct. 4 at home, Middlebury will look to play like the defending NESCAC champions they are against such a major opponent.

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