Tufts to face Middlebury for shot at first NESCAC Championship since ’86

The Tufts offensive line prepares to block against the Mules in the game against Colby College on Nov. 5. (Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily)

The pressure is on for the Jumbos (6-1) who will travel to Vermont to face the Middlebury Panthers (6-1) with a chance of becoming NESCAC champions for the first time since 1986. If Tufts vanquishes Middlebury and the Wesleyan Cardinals (6-1) defeat the Trinity Bantams (7-0), then Tufts, Wesleyan and Trinity will be co-champions.

While coach Jay Civetti admitted his team is excited, he explained how the circumstances of the situation have reduced the amount of pressure on the players.

“I think the beauty of it is [that] we have no control over what happens down in Middletown, so all we get to do is focus in on ourselves, which is great,” Civetti said. “It actually sets up perfectly because we’re going in playing [with the knowledge that] to earn a championship, we have to win the game. So there’s not a lot of things to it that are different, which is nice. The pressure is just what the normal pressure is, just to win the game.”

Senior tri-captain running back Chance Brady also expressed his and his teammates’ balancing of anticipation and anxiety.

“We have to control the controllables,” Brady stated. “We’re at 6-1 at this point. We’re just trying to make that 7-1 and see how the rest pans out. Obviously there’s a lot of excitement about winning a NESCAC championship. It’s what we’ve set out to do since the beginning, but we’ve just got to be focused on getting the win first.”

If the Jumbos play like they did last week, they have a concrete chance of securing a victory. In their 44-12 win against the Colby Mules (2-5), the Jumbos scored more than in any of their previous 48 games. Tufts had not put so many points on the board since 2010 in a 70-49 defeat against Amherst. 

Brady led the way last week, turning 26 carries into 174 yards and three touchdowns. In scoring his thirtieth career all-purpose touchdown, Brady broke the previous school high of 28. He is only 144 yards away from the Tufts record of 2,654 career rushing yards, set by Tim Fanikos (LA ‘88). Additionally, two Jumbo quarterbacks — senior Alex Snyder and sophomore Ryan McDonald — combined to throw for 83 yards on 18 attempts against the Mules.

Middlebury, however, will likely prove to be a greater challenge than the porous Colby defense. The Panthers have no shortage of talented pass rushers; junior linebacker John Jackson is tied for the most sacks in the NESCAC with six and junior defensive end Robert Wood has five takedowns of his own. The duo have forced opposing quarterbacks to abort reads and force throws. As a result, the Middlebury defense has caught a league-leading 14 interceptions. Last week, sophomore Bobby Ritter picked off two Hamilton (2-5) passes and three other Panthers caught interceptions as well.

“Middlebury has a very good defensive scheme. They’ve always been very solid,” Brady said. “They like to run a lot of stunts and tricks with their linebackers, but, you know, when it comes down to it, running the football really just becomes a matter of physicality. So I think that’s somewhere where we out-edge them.”

Still, Middlebury’s greatest strength lies not on defense but on offense. Junior quarterback Jared Lebowitz plays under center for the Panthers. Before the 2016 season, Lebowitz transferred to Middlebury from the Division I football program at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Ever since his arrival to the NESCAC, the Burlington native has shredded opposing defenses. In addition to collecting multiple Offensive Player of the Week Awards, Lebowitz leads the league in completions (169), passing yards (2174) and passing touchdowns (25). The second and third most prolific NESCAC quarterbacks, Trinity junior Sonny Puzzo and Wesleyan sophomore Mark Piccirillo have thrown for 23 touchdowns combined.

“He’s excellent,” Civetti said. “[It is] a little bit of both [accuracy and arm strength]. They run a great system, and he is the perfect quarterback for their system. He is very accurate with his throws. His placement is phenomenal. He can make all the throws. He can make throws in this league that I don’t know if they’ve had a guy that can make some of the throws that he can, and they’ve had some pretty good quarterbacks. I think he’s exceptional.”

Just as dangerous as Lebowitz are the assets at his disposal. Middlebury boasts a deep receiving corps that withstood the loss of senior wide receiver Ryan Rizzo to a wrist injury. In Rizzo’s stead, sophomore wide receiver Conrado Banky has ascended to become the statistically best wide receiver in the NESCAC. With nine catches for 154 yards and three touchdowns during last week’s game against Hamilton, Banky now leads the conference in all three of the position’s major statistical categories: catches (48), yards (825) and touchdowns (11). Senior receiver James Burke has also brought in 30 catches for 393 yards and six touchdowns.

Meanwhile, sophomore running back Diego Meritus has spearheaded the Panthers ground game, as his 57.3 rushing yards per game rank him fourth best in the NESCAC behind Brady, Trinity sophomore running back Max Chipouras and McDonald.

The Tufts defense, however, has repeatedly proven itself unwilling to be cowed. Despite repeated self-inflicted setbacks — such as the five Colby first downs that came from penalties levied against Tufts last week — defensive coordinator Kevin Farr’s crew kept the Mules out of the end zone. In the first quarter, sophomore cornerback Tim Preston intercepted an ill-advised shuffle pass by junior quarterback Christian Sparacio and returned it 99 yards for a touchdown. The Jumbos also brought down Colby play callers five times, including two sacks by senior defensive lineman Quinn Metoyer. Civetti acknowledged that his defense blitzed with five or more pass rushers more often against the Mules than it had in previous games, and he attributed it to improvements in personnel.

“There was a little bit more of [blitzing],” he said. “We had some guys that are back now that are healthy that have been out for a while, so it was really just a byproduct of just having more guys back to be able to do some things that we had done at the beginning of the year and now are happy to do again.”

Whether or not Wesleyan beats Trinity, Civetti believes his players have much to be applauded for.

“The championship part is great, but let’s also be realistic: the chance to win seven games here, that’s a big deal. That’s huge,” Civetti said. “For this senior class to have the opportunity to be 17-15 having started 0-8, I mean, that’s a pretty impressive thing to be able to claim.”

The Jumbos will play the Panthers on Saturday at 12:30 p.m. at Youngman Field in Middlebury.