Tufts and Bates to do battle, try to gain ground in NESCAC

Tufts junior quarterback Ryan McDonald sneaks past defenders thanks to a block by junior running back Dominic Borelli in the season opener against the Hamilton Continentals on Sept. 16. (Angelie Xiong / The Tufts Daily)

At present, four NESCAC teams remain undefeated with 2–0 records: Amherst, Middlebury, Trinity and Williams. This state of affairs leaves teams like the Tufts Jumbos (1–1) and the Bates Bobcats (0–2) on the outside looking in. In turn, those two teams will face off in Lewiston, Maine on Saturday, as the Jumbos look to get back on track, while the Bobcats hope to get in the win column for the first time this season.

Last week, Tufts suffered its first defeat of the season in a 24–17 overtime road loss against the Wesleyan Cardinals (1–1). That game featured a 35-yard touchdown run by junior quarterback Ryan McDonald, the first career field goal for first-year kicker Matthew Alswanger and an 85-yard punt return touchdown by junior receiver Jack Dolan.

Dolan credited his coaching and teammates for his big punt return.

[Special teams] coach [Kyle] McAllister had a really great plan for the punt return team, and there was some really good blocking by the guys up front,” Dolan said. “It always feels good to break a long one, especially in a game like that.”

After scraping out an overtime win against the Hamilton Continentals (0–2) during Week One, the Jumbos could not hold out against the Cardinals. Wesleyan’s junior quarterback Mark Piccirillo threw a 14-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Mike Breuler in overtime to seal the Cardinals’ first victory of the 2017 season.

“It’s one of those learning experiences,” coach Jay Civetti said. “It had nothing to do with lack of effort, attitude or toughness. We were playing a good team and we need to play better. We need to finish.”

In contrast to Tufts’ loss, Bates’ last game was not nearly as competitive. Trinity won that contest, 51–0, as the Bobcats’ defense just could not stop the Bantams’ high-powered offense, led by senior quarterback Sonny Puzzo. Bates’ offensive, meanwhile, managed only 14 first downs and 174 total offensive yards (less than half of Trinity’s 423 yards), including a measly 45 yards through the air.

Tufts and Bates last faced off at the Ellis Oval in the second week of the last season. The Jumbos won that rain-soaked game 12–7, propelled by two field goals from kicker Willie Holmquist (LA ’17) and a rushing touchdown by McDonald. Junior quarterback Sandy Plashkes provided the Bobcats’ lone seven points with a 30-yard touchdown pass to senior wide receiver Brian Daly.

Plashkes returned this fall and is platooning under center with sophomore quarterback Matt Golden. While Plashkes has attempted almost three times as many passes (25) as Golden (8), the second-year signal caller eclipses his junior counterpart in rushing attempts (20 versus 14). This disparity in usage derives in part from the Bobcats’ use of Golden when running the triple option. Bates is the only team in the NESCAC to employ that scheme.

The triple option involves three players in the backfield: the quarterback — in the pistol formation (four yards behind the center) — and two rushers lined up beside and/or behind him. When the triple option play is run, the quarterback must make two reads. First, he must decide whether or not to hand the ball off to one of the rushers, depending on which player the defense tries to pursue. If the quarterback fakes the first handoff, he must then make a similar decision with the second rusher. If the quarterback fakes the second handoff as well, he takes it himself, hoping that the defense has mistakenly pursued the other rushers and thus overcommitted.

This unorthodox scheme has been somewhat effective so far in freeing Golden to run. The New Bedford, Mass. native has 51 rushing yards through two games, just behind his two junior running backs, Peter Boyer (84 yards) and Kyle Flaherty (62 yards).

Tufts’ defense is now tasked with preparing to stop the triple option.

“To a certain extent it does [change our gameplan],” Civetti said. “I think that’s why they run the triple option because it makes you have to prepare differently than you have all season. You see the ball differently, the speed of it is hard to get used to. It takes a while for the defense to get in rhythm to their rhythm.”

Defensively, Bates is still coping with the recent graduation of linebacker Mark Upton (’17). A three-time member of the All-NESCAC First Team, Upton ranked third in the conference last year in total tackles (87), second in tackles for loss (14) and second in sacks (7). Attempting to fill this void are a number of players, including junior linebackers Bobby Dee (who leads Bates with 16 tackles) and Chase Fulton (who shares the team lead with 2.5 tackles for loss).

McDonald, Dolan and the Jumbo offense will look to get their team a win on the road by capitalizing against the Bobcats’ defense.

“Last week we missed a couple of opportunities,” Dolan said. “I think the big thing this week is not squandering those opportunities, and really making the most of all of our drives.”

The Tufts-Bates matchup will kick off at Garcelon Field at 1:00 p.m. on Saturday.