Football continues to climb in NESCAC, posts best record since ’98

Members of the football team, including senior tri-captain running back and reigning NESCAC Offensive Player of the Year Chance Brady (middle), watch the game against Colby on Nov. 5. (Angelie Xiong / The Tufts Daily)

Expectations reached an all-time high for Tufts football this season. With senior tri-captain running back Chance Brady returning as the reigning NESCAC Offensive Player of the Year and a young defense that added fresh talent to the roster, the Jumbos promised a lot of potential. The program is just three years removed from the 31-game losing streak that plagued its reputation. The past two successful seasons have made that streak feel like a distant nightmare and highlighted the program’s recent stretch of rapid improvement.

“Our overall focus as far as expectations was to improve from where we were the year before,” coach Jay Civetti said. “We hadn’t had back-to-back winning seasons here since the 90-91 seasons. That was a goal. Continuing to be the most physical team in the league was our mindset.”

The Jumbos set lofty goals for the 2016 season and more or less met their expectations, going 7-1 — the program’s best record since 1998 — and finishing second in the NESCAC.

The season started out with a pair of close home wins, first over Wesleyan and then over Bates. The Wesleyan game was a testament to the team’s resilience, as it fell behind early and entered the fourth quarter down 11 points only to seize the win after a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown runs from Brady.

“Looking back, I think that [Wesleyan] was an excellent team,” Civetti said. “They were one of the best we played all year. We were a great fourth quarter team, and that’s one of our goals to be the best in the fourth quarter. Sometimes I think our guys take that a little too literally but I’ll take it.”

Looking back on his performance in the game, Brady said he took pride in the Wesleyan win in particular.

“It was the kind of game where we needed someone to step up and be the guy that everyone else can lean on in that fourth quarter,” Brady said. “I got to be that guy, lean on me.”

The Bates game, like several of the Jumbos’ home games this season, was plagued by nonstop rain. Tufts took advantage of the inclement weather, relying on the team’s hard-nosed running game as well as mobile sophomore quarterback Ryan McDonald, who saw his first significant playing time in the contest.

McDonald and senior quarterback Alex Snyder split time over the rest of the season. McDonald’s willingness to tuck and run gave the Jumbos an additional threat in the backfield and opened up lanes for Brady, who had previously seen defenses overcommit to stop him.

“Ryan [McDonald] established himself and allowed us to play differently than we had planned,” Civetti said. “I don’t think that was initially part of the plan. As we developed and the offense started to grow, [offensive coordinator] coach [Frank] Hauser and the staff started to find other ways to make it work and Ryan [McDonald] certainly provided a nice element.”

McDonald said that sliding into the lineup as a regular fixture was a big adjustment.

“I saw my opening as a more mobile quarterback,” McDonald said. “It was what I expected; it was all about doing what I could to help the team. It was nice having Alex [Snyder] there to guide me through.”

The Jumbos traveled to Bowdoin and won a 41-21 contest in what was one of the most offensively balanced games of the year. Snyder, McDonald and sophomore quarterback Ryan Hagfeldt combined for 246 yards in the air and McDonald added 146 on the ground, for the Jumbos’ total 505 yards on offense.

“In the first couple games, it didn’t come as easily as it did later in the season,” McDonald said. “It just comes with experience. I think the offense worked really well as a whole. It really comes down to the grit everyone had and the [offense] specifically.”

The fourth game of the season against Trinity was Tufts’ only loss of the season. Despite a late run to pull within eight, the Jumbos could not overcome the 27 points they allowed in the second quarter and fell 36-28. The Bantams boasted the NESCAC’s best offense this season, 38.1 points per game.

The Tufts defense, which had been solid all season, made a series of statements against Tufts’ next three opponents. Against Williams, Amherst and Colby, Tufts’ defense allowed 16, 10 and 12 points, respectively. The game against the Mules was perhaps the most impressive of the three, as the Jumbos played their sloppiest first half of the season, committing multiple mistakes on special teams. Colby repeatedly was set up deep in Jumbo territory but was denied a touchdown all day.

Tufts clinched sole possession of second place in the conference in its final game, defeating Middlebury 48-35. Brady, in his final game as a Jumbo, turned in one of the best performances of his decorated career. He ran for 185 yards and three touchdowns on the ground, adding two passes for 73 yards and two more touchdowns. The Jumbo defense held the explosive Panthers’ offense, which ranked second in the NESCAC in scoring, to just seven first-half points. Though the Panthers mounted a comeback, they fell short of stealing the game.

“To go up there and to have the day that we had and for Chance to have the day that he had, that was a special day for this program,” Civetti said. “We went out there and we rallied against a really good offense, and even though it was an eight-point game at the end, it really wasn’t.”

The game was a culmination of Brady’s record breaking season. He is now Tufts’ leader in single game touchdowns (five), touchdowns in a single season — both rushing (17) and total (19) — as well as rushing yards in a season (1099) and career rushing yards (2692). Brady was honored as the NESCAC Offensive Player of the Year and as the New England Football Writer’s Association Div. III Gold Helmet recipient, both for the second straight season.

Named to the All-NESCAC first-team alongside Brady were senior center Jack Price, senior kicker Willie Holmquist, junior defensive tackle Doug Harrison, sophomore corner Tim Preston and first-year linebacker Greg Holt. Preston led the league in interceptions for the second straight year with five and Holt’s 98 tackles also paced the NESCAC. Holt was selected as the conference’s Rookie of the Year.

“I wanted to come in as the best interior [defensive lineman] in the league,” Harrison said. “I don’t know if others believe that’s true but receiving first team honors was great.”

Brady’s 1099 rushing yards ranked first in the NESCAC and McDonald posted 647 rushing yards for third. The duo represented the most dynamic ground attack in the NESCAC, with an offensive line that worked hard to push defenders off the line of scrimmage and open holes for the pair of elusive runners.

“I think it’s a complete 180 from where we were my freshman year,” Brady said. “It felt like we were on defense the entire game, but now, guys are so much more confident. They have faith in their abilities. They’re not afraid to be great and to make plays.”

Brady credited the struggles that came in his 0-8 first-year season with helping to develop a toughness within the team.

“I think this season just shows how much better our team can handle adversity,” Brady said. “Maybe it’s because we went 0-8 but we’d be down 14 and it’s like, ‘Okay what’s 14 points?’ After freshman year 14 points is nothing.”

The Tufts defense finished fourth in points allowed. Though junior defensive ends Zach Thomas and Micah Adickes did not combine for the astounding 15 sacks that they did during the 2015 season, the defensive line play reached another level this season. The team played more fundamentally sound football and allowed 85 fewer passing yards per game this season as compared to last season.

“This was [senior Mike Stearns’] defense this year,” Harrison said. “Guys that come in now see the level of dedication and the level of hard work and buy in immediately.”

The leader of the defense, tri-captain linebacker Stearns credited his teammates and their hard work for the growth of the young squad.

“Our defense is mostly younger guys so I definitely knew I needed to step up,” Stearns said. “It was all about keeping everybody on the same page, and overcoming adversity and I think that’s where I was able to help.”

This year’s senior class is a large one for the Jumbos, who are set to graduate a handful of offensive starters including Brady, Price, wide receivers Ben Berey and tri-captain Mike Rando, as well as offensive linemen Alex Kim and T.J. Muzzonigro, among others. The defense, however, remains largely intact and while this year’s seniors will be missed, Civetti is confident his team will continue to improve on its success.

“[7-1] is a good next step,” Civetti said. “It’s good to have success and we’re certainly proud of it, but it’s not good enough. You can’t be complacent and that chip on our shoulder can’t go away. Let’s not forget how we got to where we’ve gotten. That’s the challenge, we have this successful streak and now the question is what do we do to maintain it, and what do we do to push it.”