The Jumbos aim for their biggest win of the season when they host the undefeated Middlebury Panthers at the Ellis Oval this Saturday at 12:30 p.m. The Jumbos are coming off a 35–10 victory over the Colby Mules, a game in which graduate wide receiver Frank Roche set the school’s single-season receiving record. Roche has markedly improved in the second half of this grueling NESCAC season, racking up over 130 receiving yards per contest in the Jumbos’ last four games. In another statistical spotlight, first-year running back Tyler Johnson ran back a kickoff for 100 yards for a touchdown, something that no Jumbo had done in over four decades.
Roche, an Arlington, Mass., native, put up 136 yards and three scores against Hamilton in week seven, following that up with a huge 181 yard and three touchdown performance last week against the Mules. In typical Tufts football fashion, the record-setting wideout brushed off his personal achievements in favor of the team.
“I was happy that it happened, but I was a lot happier with the win the team pulled out,” Roche said.
Roche’s story is an inspiring one, as he missed much of his first-year and sophomore seasons battling shoulder injuries. His connection this season with first-year starting quarterback, senior Jacob Carroll, has become one of the most prolific in the league.
“The connection with [Carroll] has been great, and the trust he’s put in me is amazing,” Roche said.
Once again, the veteran was eager to recognize the complete team effort that contributed to his offensive boom.
“The offensive line has really stepped up, and we’re just building on some moment in the pass game,” Roche said.
Carroll has exploded on the scene this season, throwing 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions, climbing to second in the league with 232.3 yards per game. It’s not surprising that Roche and Carroll have developed such a connection, as Carroll’s impressive poise in the pocket combined with Roche’s veteran leadership bodes well for a trustworthy QB-WR bond.
“A lot of it comes down to trust and timing,” coach Jay Civetti said. “They spent a lot of time together throwing this offseason.”
The tandem of Carroll and Roche has proved to form the heart of the Jumbo pass game, while junior wide receivers O.J. Armstrong and Brendan Dolan have been dynamic second and third options.
Armstrong has had an impressive season, and he now holds the league lead in receptions per game with 6.5. The Jumbos have another league leader in Roche, who holds the mark with 11o.8 yards per game. Roche also has the second-most receiving touchdown, eight, second only to Williams wide receiver Frank Stola, who has 12.
The duo of Carroll and first-year quarterback Trevon Woodson has been efficient with the ball all season, despite being plagued by untimely interceptions, and the two have combined for the league lead in both passing yards and completions.
The big-play potential of this offense has been there all season, and the steady improvement of Carroll and Roche has only made the Jumbos more dangerous on offense. Despite that, the Jumbos find themselves with the fourth worst points per game total in the NESCAC, which brings up questions about why all the yards and receptions haven’t been leading to more points.
One reason may be that the Jumbos defense is tied for the second-worst turnover total in the league, with nine, which means the offense has fewer short fields. The most glaring stat, however, is the Jumbo’s league-worst red zone conversion rate at 39%, which explains the huge yardage numbers and the lack of scores.
On defense, perennial 1st-team NESCAC player, senior linebacker and co-captain Greg Holt has put together another phenomenal season at linebacker. Holt is second in the league in total tackles, three seasons after his first-year season in which he led the league with 98. The Temecula, Calif., native has been a top-four tackler in the league every season. On the defensive line, sophomore Jovan Nenadovic is tied for second in the league in sacks with Middlebury linebacker junior Jack Pistorius, who both have 5.5 QB takedowns on the year.
Pistorius and the Middlebury linebackers tackle extremely well and are a major point of emphasis for Civetti this week in practice.
“Their scheme allows the linebackers to have some freedom,” Civetti said. “[They’re] phenomenal at stopping the run and forcing turnovers.”
Civitti praised Middlebury coach Bob Ritter, who just logged his 100th career win.
“They’re running the ball well, throwing the ball efficiently,” Civetti said. “It’s just a really well-coached operation, really smart and very sound.”
In addition to Pistorius, the Panthers have another league-leader in running back Alex Maldjian, who has the most rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in the NESCAC.
All three phases of both teams are sure to have their hands full, as each has some of the most elite players in the league on both sides of the football. It is Middlebury, however, who has emerged as the team to beat this season in the NESCAC, as the Panthers seem to have found a winning formula in a league where so much can change week to week. Interestingly, Middlebury’s closest game of the season came against the Mules in week five.
“They had a great game plan to challenge Middlebury,” Civetti said of Colby.
Just like the Jumbos, the league-leaders have found ways to win defensive battles and high-scoring shootouts. Against the Ephs in week one, the Panthers held quarterback Bobby Maimaron to under 14 points, doing the same to the Hamilton Continentals in week eight. Against Trinity and Wesleyan, however, it was Middlebury’s offense that won the game. While Civetti said that he’s not really focused on what type of game it will be, the statistics say that he’s hoping for a high scoring contest.
While unbeaten, it’s safe to say that the Panthers have not faced a receiving threat quite like Roche since week one versus Stola, who has more of a burst than the physically imposing Roche. As a graduate student, Roche says there are certain advantages that have helped him in his record-setting season.
“Just the experience of having been around the game a bit longer helps me,” Roche said. “But every year I go in trying to improve, and I took this year as an opportunity to get better and improve.”
And improve he did. Suddenly, a player who had limited action during his undergraduate years and did not crack the 100-yard mark until week five finds himself just 114 yards away from the first 1,000 yard receiving season in Jumbo history.
It will be a tall task for Roche to dominate against a Middlebury defense that he describes as a fast, aggressive and really solid unit. Regardless, expect Roche and the Jumbos to block out the noise and focus on themselves.
“We have a lot of faith in coach’s game plan, and we’re ready to attack from the get-go,” Roche said.
As the Jumbos look to finish above .500 for the season and Middlebury tries to complete their undefeated season and claim a league title, expect this game to be extremely tight and hard-fought from start to finish.
Kickoff is set for 12:30 pm at Ellis Oval.