Tufts defeated Middlebury 31-28 in a tense, high-scoring battle to finish in third place in the NESCAC for the season. The win brings Tufts’ record to 6-2 — their best since 2001 and the first time Tufts has defeated Middlebury in 14 years. The Panthers drop to 5-3 and tie with the Wesleyan Cardinals for fourth place in the NESCAC.
“I was very proud of [the players],” coach Jay Civetti said. “I thought they played one of their best complete-team games all year. I thought all three phases were excellent, and they played some inspired football for the seniors and the opportunity to get six wins.”
Tufts started the game off on defense, but sophomore defensive back J.P. Garcia quickly got his unit off the field, diving to intercept senior quarterback Matt Milano at Tufts’ 45-yard line.
Tufts was unable to score on its subsequent drive but forced three incomplete passes in a row on Middlebury’s next drive. First-year cornerback Tim Preston nearly intercepted Milano again, but could not hold on to the ball.
Tufts junior wide receiver Mike Rando received first-year punter Charlie Gordon’s kick at Tufts’ 22-yard line and jump-started the offense by returning it 21 yards up the left side to the 43. On the Jumbos’ second play from scrimmage, junior quarterback Alex Snyder saw a gap in the defense and sprinted through, aided by Tufts’ offensive line, which further opened the hole. Snyder picked up 18 yards before making it out of bounds to the left. Tufts could not get anything going, though, and faced 4th-and-10 from Middlebury’s 38. The Jumbos prepared to punt, but instead sent Garcia streaking in behind the offensive line from the right sideline. Garcia received the snap directly and sprinted around the recovering Panther defense for a gain of 20. On second down from Middlebury’s 14, Snyder faked a handoff to junior running back Chance Brady, rolled right with plenty of time and completed a pass to senior wide receiver Jack Cooleen as he ran right through the end-zone.
“I thought J.P. Garcia had an awesome game,” co-captain Matt McCormack said. “He really balled out for us on defense and even on special teams with that fake punt.”
Not to be outdone, Milano marched the Panthers down the field on their next drive. He found senior Panther wideout Matthew Minno, who tanked his way through multiple defenders for 28 yards before Garcia brought him down at Tufts’ 41. Next Milano hit sophomore tight end Daniel Fulham and first-year running back Emilio Ovalles-Misterman for 16- and 15-yard gains, respectively. To finish off the drive, Milano went back to Minno, who caught a quick lob pass at the front of the end-zone and quickly dashed to pay-dirt, tying the game at seven apiece.
Neither team would score during the remainder of the first period. With just under 10 minutes left in the second quarter, Milano targeted Minno on 3rd-and-10, but Preston managed to swat the ball out-of-bounds. A bad punt started the Jumbos at the Panthers’ 48-yard line. Snyder completed three passes to Rando, mixing in a Brady run but also getting buried five yards behind the line of scrimmage by Middlebury senior defensive lineman Jake Clapp on a fake handoff. On the next play, Snyder telegraphed a slightly under-thrown deep shot to Cooleen, and sophomore defensive back Kevin Hopsicker intercepted the throw.
Middlebury picked up from their 15-yard line, but Milano’s first throw bounced off a receiver’s chest, and Preston dove to intercept the rebounding ball before it could hit the ground at the 25. The pick was Preston’s NESCAC leading sixth of the season.
The Jumbos then snapped the ball to Snyder who quickly pitched it to sophomore wide-receiver Joe Nault, who then tossed a beautifully arcing ball to the back of the end-zone — while being tackled by two defenders — to junior wide receiver Ben Berey. Tufts led 14-7 with just over six minutes remaining in the half.
Both teams punted on their first possessions of the second half, but around the 12 minute mark, Brady exploded from Tufts’ 33-yard line. Brady burst through the dog-pile of players at the line of scrimmage, including a defensive lineman’s arm-tackle and put on the jets through Middlebury’s second level of defense. By the time defensive backs junior Nate Leedy and first-year Matthew Daniel brought Brady down, he had picked up 56 yards, shattering his previous season long of 49. The drive stalled, but junior placekicker Willie Holmquist’s 28-yard field goal at 10:15 of the third quarter sailed through the uprights and earned the kicker Tufts’ single-season made field goal record and put the score 17-7 Tufts.
The Panthers attempted to answer, but the momentum of the game shifted against them. Sophomore linebacker Charles Calabrese dropped back into coverage on the right side of the field and with help over the top, was able to undercut a route and make a backwards leap to pick Milano off.
At 5:22 in the third, the Jumbos started at their own 32. Snyder whipped a pass to Cooleen, who was streaking up the seam of the defense, and although the ball came out, the refs ruled that Cooleen was down. Snyder completed two consecutive passes to Rando, hitting him quickly and allowing the speedster to pick up 11 yards after the catch both times, but the Middlebury offense returned to the field after a Holmquist field goal attempt went wide right.
The Panthers recognized their chance and just before the third quarter ended, Milano launched a deep ball to Minnow, who left the Jumbo secondary scrambling in his wake. The 49-yard connection ended in a touchdown with 16 seconds left in the quarter and brought Middlebury within three at 17-14.
A false start penalty backed the Jumbos up five yards to their own 20 and despite a 12-yard Brady run, they could not convert the first down. On 3rd-and-4, Brady tried to hit a huge hole his offensive line opened for him, but Middlebury sophomore linebacker John Jackson latched onto Brady’s jersey and restrained him that way. Senior defensive lineman Gil Araujo broke through his blocker and tipped Holmquist’s punt backwards. Holmquist recovered, but Tufts turned the ball over on downs at its 19-yard line.
Milano and senior tight end Trevor Miletich connected, but Preston forced Miletich out of bounds at the 1-yard line. Miletich punched in the touchdown, but Gordon missed the extra point attempt, losing an opportunity to put the Panthers ahead by four. The Panthers led for the first time 20-17.
The Jumbos then calmly ripped off chunk gains en route to a touchdown on their subsequent drive. Snyder checked down to first-year running back Dominic Borelli, who followed Rando’s excellent block for a 24-yard pickup along the left sideline. Snyder passed to sophomore wide receiver Mike Miller, who was wide open, and picked up extra yardage with a nice juke move. After two incomplete passes, it appeared as though the drive might stall out, but Snyder threw a low pass to Rando along the right sideline. Rando’s defender dove for the ball but missed, leaving Rando free to bolt up the right sideline 31 yards. Holmquist nailed the extra point to extend Tufts’ lead to 24-20.
Milano passed to junior wide receiver James Burke over the middle for a six-yard pickup on second and 10. McCormack, interfered, lifting Burke off of the ground from behind in a bear hug tackle.
“Our [defensive] linemen have been stellar,” McCormack said. “They’ve been able to keep those guys off of us [linebackers] and let us run to the ball so that’s probably what allows me to get those tackles the most.”
Sophomore defensive back Brett Phillips slipped through the Panthers’ punt blockers and jumped up to block Gordon’s punt with his body.
“[Phillips] doesn’t get to play in the game entirely except for a couple plays as safety, but what he does on special teams is unbelievable,” senior co-captain Corey Burns said. “I mean the attitude…that he brings on special teams, whether it’s on blocking that punt or just running down to make a tackle on kick return.”
With 5:31 remaining, the Jumbos were well situated at the Panther’s 24-yard line. Brady carried junior linebacker Addison Pierce for nine yards to earn a 3rd-and-2 at Middlebury’s 16. The Panthers defensive line jumped off-sides, but the refs were very late in making the call and both teams stuttered. However, junior tight end Nick Dean recognized the opportunity in the confusion and caught Snyder’s third touchdown pass of the day. The Jumbos led 31-20 with 4:12 left in the game.
Milano led his team down the field one last time and converted both a touchdown pass and a two-point conversion to Burke. It was only fitting that the league leader in passing yardage per game and touchdowns should end his playing career with a touchdown. Milano finished with 410 yards passing, three touchdowns, and one interception on the day.
Middlebury attempted an onside kick, but Tufts recovered and ran out the remaining 54 seconds to win 31-28.
“I’m proud,” Civetti said. “I’m proud of my players. I’m proud of my staff and proud of the university, and at the same time, thankful for all three of those things as well. A lot of people stuck with us when they didn’t need to from an administrative standpoint and they did. My staff certainly endured and stayed the course and obviously my players invested and believed and put in the work that was necessary. It’s an awesome community and a very strong network of people that care very much for each other.”
Snyder’s three touchdowns were a season high and four different Tufts receivers caught touchdown passes. Brady rushed for 138 yards on 25 carries, cementing himself as the NESCAC’s leading rusher per game, but losing out on the title of most touchdowns to Trinity’s first-year running back Max Chipouras, who leads with 12 over Brady’s 11.
The Jumbos have not experienced so much success on the gridiron in over a decade and although they are graduating 17 seniors — including co-captains Burns and McCormack — all signs point to the Jumbos building on their success in the future.
“We didn’t win a title or anything like that, but I think we all, speaking for the rest of the seniors…feel proud that we set this program in a place where it is better than it began when we first stepped in the door,” Burns said.