Football: Second-half comeback falls just short against Amherst

Junior defensive lineman Jared Ahsler congratulates sophomore running back Andrew Sanders for helping the Jumbos score in the second quarter during the game against Amherst on Oct. 28. (Angelie Xiong / The Tufts Daily)

Only during Halloween weekend could the Jumbos’ hopes be bloodied, resurrected and laid back to rest in the span of three seconds. Visiting Amherst led by 11 points, 31–20, when Tufts scored a touchdown with just over a minute remaining. However, a failed two-point conversion meant Tufts needed a touchdown to win.

First-year placekicker Matthew Alswanger kicked onsides and Tufts players flew to the ball, recovering it along the right sideline. With the ball and a full minute of gametime to go, suddenly Tufts had its best chance to take the lead.

“Matt [Alswanger] did a great job placing the ball,” coach Jay Civetti said. “He’s really been hitting that thing really well. He’s been working incredibly hard at it. Amherst was trying to get lined up to us. I think they expected us to go the other way. And then when it came back towards our sidelines they weren’t fully aligned, which resulted in the outcome that you saw.”

The spirits of football had other ideas. Junior quarterback Ryan McDonald threw an interception to Amherst’s sophomore defensive back John Ballard, killing Tufts’ comeback chances. The final score read 31–26 in favor of Amherst.

“We executed sometimes and then we had times where we didn’t execute,” junior wide receiver Jack Dolan said. “We didn’t do what we were supposed to do. We shot ourselves in the foot a couple times. But that’s how football is.”

In a particularly scary moment during the third quarter, Tufts junior linebacker Markus Edmunds was injured and lay unmoving on the field for roughly 10 minutes. He was eventually stretchered off the field to an ambulance and taken to the hospital.

“He’s obviously concern number one,” Dolan said. “He’s our brother, football comes second. Yesterday was the worst I’ve ever felt on the field. That was terrible. Because you’re just helpless. That’s our boy and we’re praying for him and we’re going to lift him up when he comes back. Everyone will breathe a sigh of relief when he’s back with us.”

Civetti visited Edmunds in the hospital and said he is in good spirits and on the road to recovery.

“Losing a game is hard to deal with, but you put a lot of things in perspective when you have a situation happen like what happened to Markus [Edmunds] out there,” Civetti said. “It’s a scary moment and something that you don’t ever want to see. As important as winning is and football is, your health and who you are as a person and your concern for your teammates is, at the end of the day, what should matter most.”

The last time these two teams met, Tufts defeated Amherst 27–10 at Lehrman Stadium. This time around, the Mammoths avenged their home-field loss by taking control at Ellis Oval. With the win, Amherst (6–1) remains second in the NESCAC to Trinity (7–0), while Tufts (4–3) drops to sixth.

To set up the crazy end-of-game sequence, Tufts drove all the way from its 19-yard line for a touchdown. First-year running back Mike Pedrini caught a short pass and added some tough after-the-catch yards for a first down. A holding call set Tufts back 10 yards, but McDonald took off on the next play and was hit late out of bounds, resulting in a personal foul against Amherst. Lining up just behind midfield, McDonald found junior defensive back Frank Roche open along the right sideline. Roche took the pass 30 yards, juking one defender and simply running through another before being pushed out of bounds. A facemask penalty set the Jumbos up at the Mammoth 4-yard line and McDonald threw a bullet pass to the back of the end zone, hitting Dolan right in the chest. Tufts’ two-point conversion attempt failed, so the Jumbos settled for a 31–26 deficit.

Though the Jumbos never led, they kept the game within reach the entire contest. Amherst’s largest lead came in the third quarter when Tufts held Amherst out of the end zone. The Mammoths settled for a field goal and junior placekicker John Rak’s 26-yard attempt sailed through the uprights to make the score 31–13.

Tufts responded on its next drive, which featured a number of chunk yardage plays. A facemask penalty against Amherst brought Tufts near midfield. Two straight offensive holding calls appeared to kill the drive, as Tufts faced a third-and-23 situation. Amherst backed off and four Tufts receivers ran deep, leaving plenty of space for McDonald to take off along the right sideline. He made it 44 yards, well past the first down marker, before he was pushed out of bounds. Sophomore running back Andrew Sanders punched in the 4-yard touchdown dive, his second score of the day. Alswanger’s kick was good and Tufts drew closer 31–20.

“We had our tackle [junior Tim Reitzenstein] demolish two kids in one movement and it was ridiculous,” Sanders said. “The [offensive line were beasts] the whole day. I can’t take any credit for yesterday. They made holes yesterday that a freight train could run through.”

The majority of the game’s scoring came in the first half, as Amherst only scored three points after the break to Tufts’ 13. The Mammoths’ game-winning touchdown came with just under a minute to go in the first halfSophomore wide receiver James O’Regan took his longest catch of the day, a 56-yard touchdown bomb from senior quarterback Reece Foy in Amherst’s two-minute offense, to the house for a 28–13 lead.

Foy started his sophomore season, but did not see the field his junior year and has received limited playing time as a senior. He quarterbacked for just the one drive against Tufts, attempting four passes and connecting with O’Regan for a touchdown.

The prior drive, Tufts was set up with excellent field position on its own 46-yard line, as sophomore wide receiver Robert Jones returned the kickoff 25 yards. Jones nearly went for a touchdown, as he had beaten all of Amherst’s coverage team save the kicker, but was tripped up from behind. Passes to Dolan and junior wide receiver Dan de Leon along the sidelines helped Tufts advance the ball deep into Amherst territory. On third-and-10 from Amherst’s 17-yard line, McDonald threw a fade pass to Dolan, who took a hit from a safety in the air, but still managed to come down with the ball in the end zone. Tufts’ two-point conversion attempt failed and the Jumbos trailed 21–13.

Amherst touchdowns sandwiched Dolan’s first score. Amherst sophomore quarterback Ollie Eberth faked a run play and then passed to senior wide receiver Craig Carmilani over the middle for 36 yards. The Amherst offensive line helped push junior tailback Jack Hickey over the line, and Amherst tacked on its third touchdown of the day with 4:25 to go in the half.

Tufts had struggled to move the ball prior to its first touchdown, and the Jumbos were down 14–0 after the first quarter. On first-and-10 from Tufts’ 38-yard line, Sanders burst through a hole in the left side of his offensive line and sped through Amherst’s second level defense. Suddenly, there was nothing in front of him but green and Sanders sped to the end zone for a 62-yard score. The touchdown run was the longest of Sanders’ career and doubled his previous career-long run of 31 yards, which came against Hamilton in the first game of this season.

“I was running and I was like ‘Woah, I’ve been running for a pretty long time right now. All right, here we are,’” Sanders said. “And I saw [junior defensive back John Rak] and I was like ‘Aww he’s hawking me right now. I’ve got to keep it going.’ So basically I was using him to get me through because he was catching up to me.”

Amherst’s first two touchdowns were quarterback runs, as Eberth finished off Amherst’s first drive of the game with a one-yard plunge and then fooled everyone on a run to the right side of the end zone that left him untouched.

Amherst produced 471 yards of total offense with a shocking 315 coming through the air. Though Amherst’s aerial attack is efficient with a league-leading 9.1 yards per attempt, it is hardly prolific, with the second fewest passing attempts in the league. O’Regan was particularly effective against Tufts, racking up six receptions for 132 yards and a touchdown.

“We were obviously trying to stop the run,” Civetti said. “They’ve got two of the best tailbacks in the league. We were in some man coverage. We didn’t hit home enough on blitzes. We tried to pressure and I think their offensive line did a really great job. I thought [sophomore quarterback] Ollie Eberth did a great job with the ball in his hands. He got it out quick, didn’t take too many hits. And [junior wide receiver] Bo Berluti, I think, just did a fantastic job for them in the pass game.”

The Jumbo offense was a tale of two halves, as they failed to pick up even a first down until the start of the second quarter. After halftime, though, the Jumbos went the length of the field for their scores twice. McDonald threw an interception on Tufts’ first drive, and the team has struggled with turnovers to begin games this season. On its first possession of games this season, Tufts has scored twice, punted twice, been intercepted twice (including against Amherst) and lost a fumble.

“Dumb penalties on offense and turning the ball over, I think if you go look at the tape, the tale of the tape will tell you, you’ve got to protect the football,” Civetti said. “You can’t turn the ball over versus a team like that and expect to win. It’s unfortunate, it’s part of the game, it’s part of Ryan [McDonald] developing as a quarterback. But if you look at our three losses, turnovers have been a clear indicator of why we didn’t win. It’s probably the most important stat out there.”

Tufts travels to Colby for its penultimate contest of the season at 1 p.m. on Saturday. Both teams are mathematically eliminated from the NESCAC championship race, but the game is on Colby’s Senior Day and the opportunity to win-out for their seniors is motivating both teams.

“It’s always a fight against Colby,” Dolan said. “That’s a good football team too. Every single year we’re in a dogfight with Colby. I can’t wait to get up there and avenge that loss we just had. Even more so than that, get a win for the seniors. These guys have two games left in their lives. We need to win these next two games for them. We’re locked and loaded for sure.”