Football: Jumbos never trail in 28–14 rout of winless Mules

First-year running back Mike Pedrini fights off a tackle attempt in the game against the Trinity Bantams on Oct. 14, 2017. (Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily)

Tufts (5–3) clinched its fourth five-win season since the start of the 21st century on Saturday when it rode the Colby Mules (0–8) to a one-sided 28–14 victory. The win marks Tufts’ third winning season in a row and puts to rest any worries of slipping back into the lower half of the NESCAC standings. Colby is still searching for its first win of the season and will face Bowdoin (0–8) in the final game of the season to determine which squad enters 2018 winless.

Tufts has been hit or miss to start games this season, with its first drives thus far resulting in two touchdowns, a lost fumble, three punts and two interceptions. The Jumbos’ first drive against the Mules was a three and out and the defense was forced to take the field against Colby’s league-worst offense.

Colby’s sophomore quarterback Jack O’Brien connected with senior wide receiver Christian Sparacio on the left sideline and Sparacio got free for a 29-yard gain up to the Tufts 33-yard line. Senior quad-captain defensive back Brett Phillips caught Sparacio from behind and punched the ball out for a fumble that Tufts recovered.

Having shaken off the opening whistle jitters, Tufts’ offense opened its second drive on the ground. First-year running back Mike Pedrini ripped off runs of 13, one, 18 and four yards in a row. Junior quarterback Ryan McDonald then contributed a pair of four yard rushes before Pedrini capped the drive off with three more runs for a total of 23 yards and a touchdown. First-year placekicker Matthew Alswanger kicked true and Tufts took a 7–0 lead at the 8:49 mark of the first quarter.

Colby made it into Tufts territory again on its ensuing drive and it looked as though it might answer back with a score of its own. Phillips forced his second turnover of the day, though, when he intercepted a pass thrown by sophomore wide receiver Andrew DeFranco.

“Our secondary never had a pick on the year, which we were taking a lot of crap for all season,” junior defensive back Tim Preston said. “So yesterday Brett [Phillips] had the first one I think, which kind of got everyone else going.”

The Jumbos would keep the ball on the ground throughout the game, alternatively handing off to Pedrini, sophomore Andrew Sanders or running keepers with McDonald. It was a true grind-it-out game, as Tufts ran the ball a season high 66 times to only 20 passing attempts. The 66 rushing attempts were the most in a game for Tufts during coach Jay Civetti’s seven-year tenure leading the team.

Under Civetti, the Jumbos have prided themselves on being able to establish the run. Asked whether the plan coming into the game was to wear Colby down on the ground, Civetti said the season-high rushing attempts were more a result of game flow.

With about eight minutes to go in the half, Colby once again marched into Tufts territory looking for its first score. The Mules got all the way to the Tufts 24, but O’Brien threw another interception, this time to junior defensive back Alex LaPiana.

Tufts took over on its own eight-yard line and McDonald connected with junior wide receiver Dan de Leon on two consecutive plays. A larger receiver at 6 foot 4 inches tall and 205 pounds, de Leon picked up 40 yards on his two receptions while dragging multiple Colby defenders most of the way. With a little bit of space behind them, the Jumbos returned to their ground attack, rushing seven times with only one passing attempt to break up the barrage. McDonald earned Tufts a first and goal on Colby’s one-yard line with a 10-yard scamper and Pedrini punched in his second touchdown of the day on the first attempt.

“It was exciting but as long as we get the win it doesn’t matter who’s scoring or whether we’re running or scoring,” Pedrini said. “All the running backs are just a product of our offensive line and the quarterback making the right reads. The beautiful thing about football is that it takes 11 guys working in unison to have success. And when one player finds success it’s not just him, it’s the combined effort of 11 guys working hard.”

The score read 14–0 in favor of Tufts at halftime. Neither team was able to score in the third quarter as the defenses clamped down and save for a Tufts turnover on downs, all of the third quarter drives ended in punts.

Colby’s first scoring drive of the game actually began with a minute left in the third but ran up to the 12 minute mark of the fourth. Two consecutive penalties on the Tufts defense kept the drive alive long enough for O’Brien to connect with DeFranco for a 37-yard touchdown. Tufts still led 14–7.

With its lead halved, Tufts felt pressure to answer back and asserted its will on a drive that lasted over six minutes. Junior quarterback Ryan Hagfeldt managed the drive, connecting on two of three passes and handing off to Pedrini 11 times, including a one-yard touchdown dive to cap off the drive. Alswanger’s kick was good, extending Tufts’ lead to 21–7.

“When we put Ryan [Hagfeldt] in the game I think that’s when the offense started clicking and started doing some good things,” Civetti said.

Having scored on its previous possession, the Colby offense looked to continue that momentum. However, on third down with six yards to go from their own 33-yard line, the Mules threw their third interception of the game. This time Preston was the intercepting player and he ran the ball back for a touchdown, helping Tufts jump out to a 28–7 lead in the fourth quarter.

“I think [senior quad-captain linebacker] Steve DiCienzo actually made the play in reality,” Preston said. “A kid was running a slant then [DiCienzo] knocked him off his route and made the play for me. The quarterback threw the ball right to me, so it was nice. I had some blocks downfield so it was actually a really nice play by a bunch of other guys making me look good I guess.”

Though Colby scored on its next possession, the points were too little too late, as the drive left just 1:41 on the clock in a two possession game. Tufts’ sophomore running back Jay Tyler ran the clock down to 1:11, as Colby was forced to use all three of its timeouts. Colby’s last chance to score was thwarted when an O’Brien pass was picked off by Preston for a second time.

Pedrini paced the offense with 135 yards and three touchdowns on 31 rushing attempts, while Preston, Phillips and LaPiana combined for four interceptions.

Civetti was satisfied with his defense’s performance, even though the Mules’ late touchdown put them above their season average of 11.1 points per game.

“They held their own and did everything they could and got after the quarterback as best they could,” Civetti said. “At the end of the day they held Colby to 14 points and I don’t really care how many yards it is because today in football people get a lot of yards. You’ve just got to make sure they have one less point than us and so the defense did their job in my opinion.”

Tufts hosts Middlebury (6–2) on Saturday in a Tufts Senior Day contest with significant ramifications for how the two teams finish. If the Jumbos win, they will finish fourth in the conference while the Panthers could potentially place second if they win and Amherst falls to Williams (5–3).

The Middlebury offense ranks third in the league with 32.3 points per game and racks up the most yardage on a per game basis in the NESCAC with 426.1. The Tufts defense doubled its interceptions on the season to eight after the Colby game, good enough for second in the league. Tufts also ranks second in sacks with 27. The battle between one of the league’s prolific offenses against one of its opportunistic defenses should be an exciting addition to the history of Ellis Oval.

“[We’re] just looking forward to getting out there on Senior Day, playing hard, being back at home [and] finishing the season on a high note,” Civetti said.