Jumbos welcome Mammoth football challenge

Sophomore linebacker Greg Holt closes in on the ball carrier in the game against the Trinity Bantams on Oct. 14. (Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily)

On Saturday, the Tufts Jumbos (4–2) will look to do something they haven’t done since 2003 and 2004: beat the Amherst Mammoths (5–1) in consecutive seasons. In 2016, Tufts snapped its nine-year losing streak against Amherst with a 27–10 road victory. According to coach Jay Civetti, the Jumbos appreciate that last year’s triumph is no guarantor of this year’s success.

“Last year’s Amherst team was as depleted as they’ve ever been at that point in the season,” he said. “That’s not to take anything away from the win — that was a big win [for us]. I think regardless of who they have playing, they’re as well coached a team in this league as you’re going to find. They don’t make many mistakes, and you’ve got to play them for 60 minutes, because if you let your guard down or if you give them any opportunity, they’re going to capitalize.”

Just last week, the Mammoths demonstrated the resiliency to which Civetti referred. Junior buck linebacker Andrew Yamin led Amherst to a come-from-behind 21–17 win over the Wesleyan Cardinals (4–2). The third-year Mammoth recorded an astounding 5.5 sacks during the game, just half a sack less than the NESCAC single-game record.

With his team trailing 17–7, Yamin ended consecutive Cardinal drives in the third and fourth quarters by sacking Wesleyan quarterback Mark Piccirillo on third down. These stops on defense provided the Amherst offense with the chance to rally, and with 2:43 left in the contest, a 51-yard touchdown run by senior tailback Hasani Figueroa gave the Mammoths the lead for good.

As last week’s NESCAC Defensive Player of the Week performance indicates, Yamin leads the Amherst pass rush. The Cheshire, Conn. native leads the conference in tackles-for-loss (15.5) and sacks (11.5), and he shares second place in fumbles forced (two). First-year defensive lineman Brett Bates also ranks in the top ten in the NESCAC in sacks with 3.5 quarterback takedowns.

Fortunately for the Jumbos, the Mammoths are not the only team with a reigning NESCAC Player of the Week. Tufts’ junior quarterback Ryan McDonald was named the conference’s Offensive Player of the Week last week after leading Tufts to a 21–13 win over the Williams Ephs (4–2). McDonald set a personal record of 336 passing yards against the Ephs, including a 59-yard touchdown throw to junior wide receiver Jack Dolan on a post route.

Meanwhile, the Jumbos’ defense kept the Ephs to single digits until just before the six-minute mark of the fourth quarter, after which point McDonald and sophomore running back Jay Tyler were able to run out the clock. Additionally, in the third quarter, Tufts forced a safety for the first time since a September 2013 defeat to Wesleyan.

“I’m really proud of the team effort in a tough road win last week, bouncing back from a difficult loss two weeks ago,” Civetti said. “That’s a big signature win for these seniors, being able to [beat Williams] twice on the road and twice at home. I don’t know that there’s a group of guys in the history of Tufts football that necessarily have [done that].”

Turning to the other side of the ball, no NESCAC team has run fewer pass plays than the Mammoths. When he does drop back, however, sophomore quarterback Ollie Eberth makes it count, as the Andover, Mass. native ranks second in the conference in passing efficiency (164.7). Junior wide receiver Bo Berluti leads the Mammoths in receptions (27), while sophomore James O’Regan paces the team in receiving yards (428) and receiving touchdowns (four).

Amherst’s foremost rusher is junior tailback Jack Hickey, who ranks second in the NESCAC in rushing touchdowns (six) and third in yards per game (81.7). In last year’s engagement, Hickey managed only eight yards on three totes as the Jumbos held the Mammoths as a team to just 2.3 yards per carry.

Although Tufts’ prolific pass rush has received a large amount of praise this season (and justifiably so), the Jumbos’ run defense also merits credit for its contributions to recent victories. Last week, Tufts smothered Williams’ first-year running back T. J. Dozier. Apart from a meaningless 27-yard scurry to run down the clock at the end of the first half, Dozier managed just 2.4 yards per carry against the Jumbos’ formidable front.

Spearheading the Tufts run defense are sophomore middle linebacker Greg Holt and senior quad-captain linebacker Steve DiCienzo. Holt — the reigning NESCAC Rookie of the Year and a member of last year’s All-NESCAC First Team — ranks third in the conference in solo tackles (36), while DiCienzo is tied for ninth (30).

When asked directly, Civetti swiftly rejected the notion that Amherst’s recent run-first tendency might lead Tufts to load the box — i.e., increase in the number of defensive players that are close to the line of scrimmage from the typical seven to a heightened eight or nine.

“No,” he said. “They’ve got talent everywhere. They’re good in every position, so no, I don’t think it’s going to force us to load the box any more than we do already.”

Indeed, Civetti predicted that Tufts’ typical tactics were sufficient to force Amherst to throw the ball more.

“My guess is because of how we load the box [already], you’ll see those stats maybe a little bit different,” he said in reference to the Mammoths’ run-to-pass ratio. “I think they’re going to attack the perimeter more so than maybe they have the last couple weeks. I just think they haven’t had to throw the ball because of the running game that they have.”

Holt affirmed that the Jumbos’ tactics would not change.

“I don’t think we ever change things up too much depending on the team, because at the end of the day, we’re just going to play Tufts football,” he said. “The other team’s going to do what they’re going to do, but if we stay focused on ourselves and playing as a team and following what our coaches tell us, then whatever they do, we’re prepared.”

The Jumbos and Mammoths kick off at the Ellis Oval on Saturday at 1:30 p.m.