Two entirely different Tufts football teams showed up to play against Hamilton on Saturday. The Jumbos dominated the game to the tune of a 21-0 lead in the first half, but a few big plays in the second half saw that lead rapidly evaporate. At the end of regulation time, the score was tied 21 apiece, but a loss for the Jumbos was not in the cards. In overtime, the Tufts defense stood up to Hamilton, and the offense eked out enough yardage for junior placekicker Willie Holmquist to knock in a 28-yard game winning field goal.
“It shows that we are contenders this year,” junior running back Chance Brady said. “We are a legitimate and strong competing team and it really just shows that it’s not luck, it’s preparation.”
Brady figuratively carried the Jumbos’ offense and literally carried Hamilton defenders on his back throughout the game en route to 117 total rushing yards, two touchdowns and a 10-yard reception. His ability to slip through the smallest of holes and break tackles with seeming ease forced Hamilton to stay honest against junior quarterback Alex Snyder — who is also a running threat.
Junior wide receiver Mike Rando acted as the de facto chain mover for the Jumbos, receiving six passes for a total of 53 yards in addition to his punt and kick return duties. Rando singled out offensive line play as a key to his success and that of the offense as a whole.
“Protection up front was huge yesterday,” Rando said.”The line was blocking and just making huge holes for the run game. I’ve got to credit those guys up front and obviously the quarterback [for] finding guys open in the right places at the right times. My job is just to get open and catch the ball — it’s not that hard.”
On defense, senior co-captains Corey Burns and Matt McCormack consistently disrupted Hamilton’s offense — Burns on the defensive line and McCormack as a linebacker. McCormack’s team-leading eight tackles were unsurprising — he was the NESCAC tackles leader in the 2014 season — and Burns added a sack and two tackles for loss.
“We’ve got two very veteran guys, one of [whom] is our captain, in Corey Burns and [in senior] Ife Adebayo, playing on the defensive line,” coach Jay Civetti said. “I think their influence on that group has been more than a coach can ever ask for. There is great accountability. I think we made good strides last year as a defensive line, but I think this preseason they’ve developed an attitude and a set of standards in terms of their performance that they are holding each other to.”
Tufts marched down the field on its first drive, ending with a three-yard touchdown run by Brady.
Every time Hamilton seemed to rally or gather momentum in the first half, pressure from the defensive line forced sophomore quarterback Brandon Tobin to throw away the ball or take a sack. In the second quarter, Tobin rolled out left expecting to find space, but was instead met with a charging McCormack who drove him to the turf. Displaying a willingness to play tough allowed the Jumbos to stuff Hamilton’s run game all afternoon. Tobin was injured on the play and did not return to the field for the rest of the game.
A 43-yard Holmquist field goal in the second quarter brought the Jumbos lead to 10, and Brady notched another touchdown on a 13-yard rush five minutes later. A surprising two point-conversion attempt was executed flawlessly, and just before half time, Holmquist tacked on another three points to bring the Jumbos’ lead to 21-0, signaling his complete recovery from an quad injury that kept him sidelined all of the 2014 season.
“It’s sort of long in this league, but it’s nothing surprising to me,” Holmquist said of his 43-yard field goal. “It just comes down to a lot of preparation, working hard and staying strong in the offseason. I think that I could bump that up a few more yards if I get the chance.”
Hamilton attacked Tufts’ secondary deep in the second half as junior quarterback Chase Rosenberg, who came in for Tobin, connected on a 53-yard touchdown pass in the third quarter. He then threw a bomb to senior wide receiver Pat Donahoe, who managed to get behind junior safety Mike Stearns for another touchdown. A third Hamilton touchdown sent the game into overtime.
“We started two guys at corner that had never really played college football before … and then Mike Stearns, who is the veteran back there — it was his first time starting at safety,” Civetti said. “That’s not to make excuses — I think those guys learned a lot against a solid team — but in terms of growing, I think we need to be more accountable for our alignments and our calls.”
Civetti also explained that the team needs to perform more consistently than they did on Saturday.
“We can’t achieve our goals of being the best team on Saturdays if we are not playing two halves of football,” Civetti said. “And really, one play at a time is what it comes down to. On three of them they got one more than us, and I always say to the guys, ‘Hey, you’ve got to get one more than them.'”
In overtime, sophomore Zach Thomas earned Tufts’ fourth sack of the day and contributed to a crucial goal line stand, allowing the offense a chance to end the game, which Holmquist’s kick ultimately did.
“Our culture is focused on special teams just as much as it is on offense and defense,” Civetti said. “We spend a lot of time and preparation on [special teams], I think more so than other places. It’s an honor to be on [special teams] because if you’re a starter on special teams, then you are a starter on the team.”
Tufts will take on Bates this Saturday for a second away game. With the victory over Hamilton, Tufts has already earned more away wins this season than it did last season.