Football travels to Middlebury for finale as seniors look to match all-time wins record

Tufts senior quarterback and co-captain Ryan McDonald scrambles out of the pocket during the team's 48–0 win over Colby on Nov. 3. Evan Slack / The Tufts Daily

It has all come down to this for the Tufts football team, which will play its ninth and final game of the season in Middlebury, Vt. tomorrow. The Jumbos currently sit in third place in the NESCAC standings with a 6–2 record and will face off against the Middlebury Panthers (5–3), who are right behind them in a three-way tie for fourth. With a win, Tufts will hope to match the records of Trinity and Amherst, both of whom are currently 7–1, while Middlebury would leapfrog Tufts in the conference standings with a win tomorrow.

While the Jumbos can end the season tied for first with a win and losses by the Bantams and Mammoths to the Wesleyan Cardinals and the Williams Ephs, respectively, they have no chance to capture the NESCAC title, having lost to both teams earlier in the season. Coach Jay Civetti noted that he has not emphasized the team’s place in the conference with his players.

“We haven’t really talked at all about [the standings],” Civetti said. “What we have talked about is competing for the best record that we possibly can have. There [have] been very few times in Tufts football history that there’s been a seven-win season, so that would be something to take a great deal of pride in.”

The Jumbos are coming off of a dominant 48–0 win over the Colby Mules on Saturday in the team’s final home game and Senior Day. The standout Class of 2019 got the win in its final game at Ellis Oval — its 24th win in four years, which puts the group just one shy of the Class of 1982’s program record for wins by a single graduating class.

The Jumbos found the end zone seven times in all on Saturday, as senior quarterback and co-captain Ryan McDonald was responsible for four touchdowns. The signal caller threw for two touchdowns, to senior wide receiver Dan de Leon and junior fullback Winton Blount, and added two rushing scores. The Jumbos also received rushing touchdowns from three other players: senior running back Dom Borelli, junior running back Jay Tyler and senior quarterback Ryan Hagfeldt.

The game was also particularly strong for Tufts’ defense, which notched its second shutout of the season. Key plays were made by many Jumbos, including senior defensive lineman Nmesoma Nwafor, who tipped a pass into the air and caught it for his first career interception near the end of the first half.

Junior linebacker and co-captain Greg Holt led the defense with his usual strong play. The Temeca, Calif. native recorded a team-high eight tackles and played a critical role in stopping Colby’s running and passing attacks. Holt spoke to the team’s motivation, which propelled it to success against the Mules.

“It was really everyone’s excitement to be back on the field together,” Holt said. “We were focused on executing but, at the same time, having fun. It was just another opportunity to play football with your best friends.”

The linebacker got nostalgic about the team’s seniors, as he discussed the importance of earning wins for them down the stretch.

“We always want to send our seniors out on a high note,” Holt said. “[The next game] is the last time we’ll be playing with them, so I think everyone is focused on making sure that we don’t lose the mindset of playing four quarters of Tufts football. We want to get them the win they deserve.”

The Jumbos will have that chance against the Panthers tomorrow. They led by a single point at halftime of last year’s season finale but allowed the visiting Panthers to go on a 15–3 run in the second half to steal a win at Ellis Oval. Then-junior quarterback Jack Meservy was 26-of-45 through the air, finishing with 275 yards and three touchdowns as Tufts struggled to contain Middlebury’s explosive passing attack. McDonald threw for just 121 yards but added 145 on the ground, including a rushing touchdown.

After its 48–0 loss to Trinity two weeks ago, Middlebury bounced back on Saturday with a 35–17 road win at Hamilton. Sophomore quarterback Will Jernigan tossed for 246 yards, adding four touchdowns with two interceptions. The Panthers jumped out to leads of 14–0 and 21–7 in the first half, but the Continentals narrowed the deficit to just four points with a touchdown and a field goal at the end of the second quarter. The visitors locked up the win in the second half, with Jernigan’s fourth touchdown and a rushing score by sophomore running back Peter Scibilia. The Jumbos will no doubt be aware of Jernigan’s aerial threat, as the Decatur, Ga. native ranks fifth in the NESCAC in passing touchdowns with 10.

Middlebury will face a much greater challenge in a Tufts team that defeated Hamilton 29–2 in the season opener. Nonetheless, Civetti acknowledged the Panthers’ strength.

“We have our hands full this weekend,” he said. “Middlebury is one of the most successful programs in the NESCAC. They’re always really competitive. I know … they’re going to be prepared, so we’ve got to show up ready to play, ready to execute. I’m excited to attack the opportunity.”

The Jumbos and Panthers will kick off at 12:30 p.m. tomorrow at Middlebury’s Youngman Field.