With a .500 record out of reach and a NESCAC championship even more distant, the Tufts football team turns its attention to Saturday’s contest versus Middlebury looking to reestablish its pride and send its seniors out on a winning note.
The 2-5 Jumbos, stuck in the midst of a four-game losing streak and fresh off a 34-31 road loss to Colby, will welcome the pass-happy, 4-3 Panthers and junior quarterback Donald McKillop to Zimman Field. Tufts hopes to end a seven-game skid with the match against Middlebury and honor its 18 fourth-years with the last game of the season.
In order to accomplish these goals, a depleted Tufts defense will have to figure out a way to limit McKillop’s production through the air. The California native is far and away the most prolific NESCAC quarterback, currently averaging 362.4 yards per game with a 64.9 completion percentage and 19 touchdowns. Last week against Hamilton, McKillop eclipsed the 400-yard mark, going 34 of 50, and tacked on four scores in a 37-14 rout.
McKillop’s numbers are as much the result of play-calling — the Panthers have passed the ball 374 times this year, 69 more than the nearest NESCAC school — as they are of his skill set and supporting cast, since he has accumulated a 134.6 passer rating. His top two receivers, seniors James Millard and Erik Rostad, rank second and third, respectively, in the conference in receptions. Overall, four of the top seven NESCAC receivers hail from Middlebury.
“They’re a pass-oriented offense and definitely will try to take it to us in every sense through the air,” senior quad-captain Alex Perry said. “They’re really going to test us on Saturday, but we’re as prepared as ever.”
Tufts will take the field with a banged-up secondary that will be challenged to stop the conference’s second-best scoring offense. Last week, senior defensive back Andrew Elfman went down with an ACL injury and will be out for this week, while senior quad-captain Tom Tassinari’s ability is uncertain after he suffered a knee injury two weeks ago.
But for all their high numbers, the Panthers are clearly vulnerable, as indicated by their record. Middlebury fell in an opening-day shootout with Bowdoin 50-35, a game in which McKillop put up 420 passing yards but turned the ball over three times. Additionally, in a 20-10 loss to Amherst, he threw four interceptions despite throwing for 438 yards.
It seems, then, that Tufts’ chances hinge on its ability to make McKillop turn the ball over, something he has done nine times in three road games, but just once at home.
“Turnovers are huge in any game; they really can swing momentum in your favor,” Perry said. “They put the ball in the air a lot, so it would be great if we can undercut some routes and force some interceptions. It’s going to be a good challenge and a good test for us, but I think we’ll be ready to go. We’ve faced good quarterbacks all year, so we just need to continue what we’ve been doing.”
In order to match Middlebury’s offensive firepower — the Panthers have scored under 28 points just once this year — the Jumbos will have to replicate it, yard for yard. And if last week’s close loss to Colby is any indication, Tufts is up to the task.
“I think the offense played pretty well last week; we didn’t have many mental mistakes, and we converted a lot of third downs and big plays,” senior quarterback Tom McManama said. “Their offense is really explosive, and McKillop is a really good quarterback, so we definitely need to sustain long drives and keep them off the field, especially given the injuries on our defense.”
McManama had his most efficient day as a Jumbo last Saturday, completing 83 percent of his passes for two scores and zero interceptions and hooking up with senior Steve Cusano eight times for 50 yards and a touchdown.
Additionally, junior running back Pat Bailey tore up the field, accumulating 293 all-purpose yards and two rushing touchdowns, including a 94-yard jaunt — one of the longest plays in Tufts’ history. Against the NESCAC’s third-worst rush defense, Bailey, who ranks fourth in the conference in ground yardage, could have another field day provided his young offensive line remains up to the task
“They played great last week; a bunch of new guys stepped up and played really well, and I’m confident they will do the same this week,” said McManama about his front five, which is starting just two of five opening-day first-teamers due to injury. “Middlebury sends some blitzes at us so [the offensive linemen] just need to be cognizant of all that and make sure they’re communicating.”
Middlebury’s history against Tufts could play a role in the psyche of the Jumbo squad. Middlebury has enjoyed a seven-game winning streak against the Jumbos dating back to 2001. In last year’s meeting, the Panthers scored 17 unanswered fourth-quarter points to win 38-24, though an injured McKillop did not play. In that game, McManama threw two interceptions and completed just seven passes, though Tufts entered halftime with a 10-point lead.
“They’re fast, pretty strong up front and bring a pretty good rush,” McManama said. “They lost a few guys in the secondary from last year, so maybe we can exploit that. But they’re really good — they’ll come at you and hit you in the mouth.”
Regardless of what happens on the field, Saturday’s contest will be bittersweet for the Jumbos, as they conclude their season and bid farewell to their seniors.
“There’s nothing more after this,” McManama said. “It’s our last game and I definitely want to go out on a good note. I just need to make sure that I leave everything I’ve got on the field.”
“It would mean the world to end my four-year career on a high note,” Perry added. “If we can find a way to get a ‘W,’ whatever way that is, that would be an awesome feeling.”