After securing a 35–28 overtime victory in the home opener against the Hamilton Continentals (0–1), the Tufts football team (1–0) travels to Middletown, Conn. to play the Wesleyan Cardinals (0–1).
Last season, the Jumbos scored two touchdowns in the fourth quarter to secure a dramatic 17–14 comeback win against the Cardinals. This game, like last year’s contest, will be played at night under the lights. According to Tufts coach Jay Civetti, the unusual nighttime kickoff — the only evening game on the schedule this year — should have little impact on the team’s preparations.
“You’re never going to match the lighting somewhere else, [and] we’ve had enough night practices during the preseason,” Civetti said. “From a facilities standpoint, honestly, it’s probably more of a headache to try to rearrange everybody’s schedules … and at the end of the day, I’m not interested in moving kids’ academic schedules around just to get us more accustomed to the football lighting at night.”
After ceding 28 points to the Continentals — more than they gave up in all but two games last season — the Jumbos’ defense has a fresh challenge awaiting them: junior quarterback Mark Piccirillo. A member of last year’s All-NESCAC Second Team, Piccirillo performed admirably in the Cardinals’ opening 30–27 loss to the Middlebury Panthers (1–0). The third-year signal caller completed 73.58 (39 of 53) percent of his passes for 432 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions.
Piccirillo is considered a dual-threat quarterback, meaning that he is capable of compiling yardage by passing as well as by running the ball. Last year, the Cardinals quarterback recorded a rushing touchdown in five different games, including a 23-yard score against the Jumbos. Among NESCAC quarterbacks in 2016, only Tufts’ now-junior quarterback Ryan McDonald had as many touchdowns (five each) or more rushing yards per game (80.9 versus Piccirillo’s 52.0).
Senior quad-captain safety J.P. Garcia explained that practicing regularly with McDonald and fellow junior quarterback Ryan Hagfeldt has prepared the Tufts defense for Piccirillo.
“Most of the quarterbacks in this league these days are dual-threat quarterbacks, and we play against dual-threat quarterbacks in practice every day,” Garcia said. “The important thing is just taking [one part] away, whether it’s the run [by] not allowing him to scramble through keeping contain in the pocket, or taking away the pass by just making sure we stay on our men downfield. Even if he does scramble, [we] know to not let those guys get away from us to give our guys up front to time to go tag the quarterback.”
Last week — and last season — Piccirillo’s leading pass catcher was senior wide receiver Mike Breuler. Against the Panthers, the Hamden, Conn. native and 2016 All-NESCAC First Team member caught a program record 15 passes for 175 yards and three touchdowns. Another major target for Piccirillo is senior tri-captain wide receiver Eric Meyreles, who snagged eight passes for 77 yards last week. Sophomore wideout Hallvard Lundevall, who grabbed four passes for 48 yards and a touchdown against Middlebury, will also look to make an impact.
One Cardinal vulnerability is the team’s offensive line. Last season, the quintet had a conference-best sack rate of five percent. After three of its five starters graduated, however, the unit appears far weaker. After allowing just 13 sacks in all of 2016, the Wesleyan offensive line yielded four sacks against Middlebury. Given these vulnerabilities, Tufts’ pass rush – led by senior defensive lineman Micah Adickes, who had two takedowns against Hamilton – may be able to limit the damage inflicted by Piccirillo.
On the defensive side of the ball, Wesleyan returns four members of last year’s all-conference teams. Senior tri-captain defensive back Nate Taylor and senior defensive back Elias Camacho lead an experienced Cardinal secondary. Meanwhile, senior tri-captain linebacker Shayne Kaminski and junior defensive lineman Grant Williams — two of the top 15 NESCAC sackers from 2016 — will look to put serious pressure on McDonald and Hagfeldt.
Last week, despite suffering in-game injuries to McDonald and junior running back Dominic Borelli, the Jumbos collected 481 total yards, of which 318 came through the air — more than in any game since a 2014 loss to Bowdoin. Junior wide receiver Jack Dolan registered the best game of his career, catching nine passes for 63 yards and a touchdown. The running back corps also contributed to the victory, with Borelli and sophomore running back Andrew Sanders each accruing over 40 all-purpose yards.
Civetti explained that the first game had its fair share of challenges as a result of those injuries, but was confident in younger players to step up and fill the voids.
“As a whole, [during] week one, I thought there were some real positives,” Civetti said. “Losing Borelli put us in an interesting place to see who was going to step up, [and] Sanders did a great job jumping in there.”
The Saturday kickoff at Corwin Stadium comes at 6 p.m.