With just one week remaining in the regular season, the 5-2 Jumbos will look to achieve their best record since 2001 with a win over the 5-2 Middlebury Panthers at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday.
Middlebury features one of the strongest offenses in the league led by senior quarterback Matt Milano, who has racked up 2,177 passing yards this season, along with 20 touchdowns. Coach Jay Civetti explained that stopping such a prolific passer creates a unique challenge for the Tufts defense.
“We’ve got a different challenge this week on the defensive side of the ball,” Civetti said. “[Middlebury] has arguably one of the best passers in the history of the league at quarterback. They’ve got some guys banged up at the wide receiver position, but in true Middlebury fashion, it’s just next man up. They can really stretch the field vertically. It’s a different change-up for us, because we’re usually trying to stop the run.”
While the Middelbury passing game has been dominant this season, the team has struggled to run the football effectively, having only managed 484 rushing yards this season and a team average of 2.3 yards per carry.
Facing such a fast-paced offense, the Jumbos may have to turn to their own passing game should they find themselves falling behind early. They are led by junior quarterback Alex Snyder, who Civetti is confident can keep up with the Panthers should the need arise.
“We have a challenge offensively; Coach Mandigo, the defensive coordinator, will load the box,” Civetti said. “He’ll create a lot of variations of things we’ll have to sort out throughout the game. Certainly he’ll be emphasizing stopping the run, so we need to take advantage of our vertical threats. They’re going to start fitting seven, eight, even nine guys in the box. Fortunately, Alex Snyder has one of the better arms in the league as well.”
While Tufts feels confident turning to their passing attack if it becomes necessary, the Middlebury defense has been strong against opposing quarterbacks this year. Their secondary features defensive backs junior Nate Leedy and sophomore Kevin Hopsicker, as well as sophomore linebacker Wesley Becton, all of whom have managed three interceptions this season. On the defensive line is senior Gil Araujo, whose seven-and-a-half sacks are second in the NESCAC this season.
“They do have a phenomenal corner in Leedy, he’s the boundary corner,” Civetti said. “He is very, very good. Their safeties are excellent, they’ve got great linebackers. [Araujo] is certainly a guy we have to keep an eye on, setting our protections to him, so that we can keep Alex [Snyder] upright and be able to get the ball downfield.”
While Middlebury tries to stop the Tufts running game, Tufts will be relying on the secondary to keep up with Middlebury’s number one receiver, senior Matthew Minnow. The 6’3″ Minnow is a massive target who has managed an impressive 661 yards and eight touchdowns through the air this season.
Putting pressure on the quarterback has been one of Tufts’ strengths this year. The team leads the NESCAC in sacks with 24 — four more than second-place Middlebury. The Jumbos will no doubt be looking to their defensive line to put pressure on Milano, and sophomore linebacker Zach Thomas will be looking for another strong performance following his three-and-a-half sacks last Saturday against the Colby Mules.
At 5-2, Tufts is eliminated from contention from the NESCAC championship, but the team will continue to play for the chance to better their record.
“From a mathematical standpoint, that opportunity was taken away from us, but we talk about always competing and always competing to be your best,” Civetti said. “Right now we have the opportunity to be our best at 6-2. Everything we emphasize, everything we talk about is always about winning or losing and achieving and giving it your all. We need to do our part to start challenging Middlebury a little better than we have in the last few years.”
Civetti spoke about the team’s development over the course of the past few seasons.
“[This season] is a reflection upon our senior leadership,” Civetti said. “They did their job in terms of carrying the team to the next spot. They made a promise to the seniors last year who got us to 4-4 that they would take the program to the next step, and make it better than they found it. Their first two years they started out 0-16, and right now their sitting at 5-2. That’s something to be proud of. We’re back in the conversation, and back in the place where year in and year out we should be competing for a championship.”