Football drops defensive battle at Amherst

Tufts quarterback, senior Ryan McDonald, reaches for an extra yard during Tufts' 47 - 14 victory over Bates at Bello Field on Sept. 29. Rachel Hartman / The Tufts Daily

The Jumbos traveled to Pratt Field in Amherst, Mass. on Saturday, with hopes of spoiling the Mammoths’ undefeated record. They came out on the losing end in a hard fought defensive battle, falling 19–13, as their opponent remained undefeated. This loss dropped Tufts’ overall record to a still-stellar 5–2 mark. Tufts is now tied with Williams for third place in the NESCAC standings, behind Amherst and Trinity.

The game was played under harsh conditions, as wind and rain took its toll on both teams with both offenses struggling to move the ball through the air. Senior co-captain quarterback Ryan McDonald led the Jumbos’ air attack with 137 yards passing, and also scored a rushing touchdown, while Amherst’s junior quarterback Ollie Eberth chalked up 150 yards passing. The Jumbos’ running game was spearheaded by sophomore running back Mike Pedrini, who racked up 65 yards rushing. 

The Jumbos held strong on the defensive side for most of the game. Despite Amherst keeping possession of the ball for nearly two thirds of the match, Tufts was able to limit them to only 281 total yards. Sophomore linebacker Jack Walton led the charge, coming in first on the team with a game-high 12 tackles. He credited his defensive performance to the work of his teammates.

“Honestly, it was just the guys around me,” Walton said. “The defense as a whole played very well. I thought for the front seven, it was the best we’ve played all year. Our [defensive] line did a great job filling gaps and that allowed me to make plays.”

The Mammoths started the game strong, scoring on their first drive. After Amherst marched down the field and advanced the ball to the red zone, Tufts’ defense pulled together to force fourth down at the five-yard line. The Mammoths then cunningly faked a field goal and scored a rushing touchdown.

The Jumbos failed to secure a first down on either of their first two possessions, allowing their hosts to get comfortable. The Mammoths again drove the ball down the field into Tufts territory on the next drive, but the Jumbos’ defense came through this time by preventing another fourth-down conversion.

However, the Jumbos’ offensive struggles continued, as Mammoth senior linebacker John Callahan intercepted McDonald on the ensuing drive. The Mammoths were able to convert their excellent field position into a 39-yard field goal and a 10–0 lead.

Tufts finally started to heat up on offense in the second quarter, when McDonald completed a 27-yard pass to senior wide receiver Dan de Leon. While they were unable to generate any points on that drive, they would soon get on the board. After an Amherst punt forced by a key sack from junior defensive lineman Kevin Quisumbing, McDonald scored on the following possession with a 25-yard run. The Jumbos failed to convert their two-point attempt and went into halftime trailing 10–6.

Just as in the first half, the Mammoths came out the stronger of the two teams again. Midway through the third quarter, Callahan caused another Jumbo turnover, forcing and recovering a fumble and then returning it all the way to the Tufts 2-yard line. From there, Amherst easily scored a touchdown through senior tailback Jack Hickey but could not complete the extra point to lead by 10.

While the Tufts offense struggled, Amherst built on its lead early in the fourth quarter. Despite big tackles from three Jumbos — senior defensive lineman Nmesoma Nwafor, junior linebacker and co-captain Greg Holt and junior defensive lineman Conor Chepenik — the Mammoths were able to get into field goal range and nail one from 13 yards out.

Tufts finally put together a sustained drive with 13 minutes remaining. The drive went 75 yards, and was punctuated by a 22-yard pass from McDonald to sophomore wide receiver OJ Armstrong that brought them all the way to the 2-yard line. From there, senior running back Dom Borelli punched the ball in to cut Amherst’s lead to only six points.

Despite some incredibly strong play from the defense, the Jumbos failed to capitalize on their opportunities to take the lead or even tie for the remainder of the game. They punted on their next possession, and then, on what would be their final drive of the game, McDonald tossed an interception, ending any hopes of a Jumbos comeback.

Coach Jay Civetti saw no magic solution to the team’s offensive woes, but rather a simple need to perform with greater poise.

“We’ve got to execute better,” he said. “Amherst has a really strong defense, and we just had to play better than we did. We got the ball with three minutes left in the game and we needed to put something together. We’ve got to be able to score.”

Overall, the Jumbos turned the ball over three times in the course of the game, while the Mammoths remained turnover-free. Despite a valiant effort from the defense, the Jumbos could not overcome their strong opponent. However, they will likely be keeping their heads up even after this defeat. Civetti said he is confident about his squad’s ability to close the season on a high note.

“Everybody’s fully committed to making sure we focus on each other and do better at what we’ve got to get better at,” he said. “It’s the last home game with this senior crew, and we need to really focus on finishing the season the right way. We’ll control what we can control, stay invested in one another and take pride in our season.”

Walton said that should the team win its next two games, the current senior class will be tying the record for most wins by a class year in program history.

“We’re just playing for our seniors now,” he said. “I know that if we get these next two wins, the seniors will have tied the record for most wins by a class in Tufts football history. So we’re trying to get these two wins for those guys, so that they can leave on a high note.”

Tufts will look to get back to its winning ways this Saturday at Ellis Oval. The Jumbos will be playing their final home game of the season against the Colby Mules, which will kick off at 1 p.m.