At 1 pm today, the Middlebury football team opens the season at Youngman Field against visiting Bowdoin. It will be the first time the Panthers have played the Polar Bears since 2009, when Middlebury lost in a wild shootout 50-35. In that game, Donnie McKillop attempted 61 passes, completing 38 of them while throwing three touchdown passes and three interceptions.
Since then McKillop, the most prolific passer in Middlebury history, has graduated — though Mac Foote stepped into the void with a record season last year — and the Bowdoin defense has solidified into one of the best units in the conference.
The Polar Bears allowed just 16 points per game last year, the third best mark in the NESCAC. (For context the Panthers gave up a conference worst 31.2 points per game last season). Middlebury dominated the other side of the football, however, finishing the 2011 season with the second highest scoring offense in the conference, while Bowdoin put up a paltry 13.1 points per game.
The contrasts in style, however, ultimately led to the same season record as both teams overcame disappointing starts to finish with 4-4 records. The similarities between the two teams’ outcomes is even more striking considering that they shared three of their four victories against the same teams (Colby, Hamilton and Tufts) and three of their losses against common opponents (Trinity, Williams and Amherst) as well.
For the Polar Bears, the return of junior quarterback Grant White is vital. White was injured midway through the season last year, forcing freshman Mac Caputi into the starting role. Caputi struggled, completing fewer than 37 percent of his passes while throwing seven interceptions and just three touchdowns in six games. White, who showed signs of promise before his injury and in limited action as a freshman in 2009, will be a tough assignment for the Panthers who will have to account not only for his arm, but for his legs as well.
On the other side of the ball, Bowdoin returns a pair of talented linebackers, but lost its top defensive player from a season ago, Peter Troubh, to graduation. Troubh was one of the best defensive linemen in the conference last year, finishing second in sacks with seven and third in tackles for a loss with 15 total. Returning to fill Trough’s shoes are two junior linebackers, Griffin Cardew and Joey Cleary, both of whom were among the top 15 tacklers in the conference last season as sophomores.
Middlebury, meanwhile, enters the season returning more than 70 percent of the team’s starters from last season, including the nation’s top passing quarterback, Mac Foote. Behind an offensive line that includes potential All-American left tackle Ryan Moores and Jack Allard, a talented junior opposite him, and with weapons like preseason All American tight end Billy Chapman, deep threat Zach Driscoll out wide and a tremendous pass catcher out of the backfield in Remi Ashkar, Foote is primed to have another tremendous season. Sophomore receiver Brendan Rankowitz, a top candidate to have a breakout season is also a name to watch on this team.
Defensively, the Panthers will be better almost by default. There are, however, a number of players, particularly in the secondary, who could generate some excitement this season. Dan Kenerson came on strong as the season progressed last year, finishing second on the team with 54 total tackles and leading the unit with three pass breakups. The bar is set high for corners Jared Onouye, a junior, and sophomore Joel Blockowitz, both of whom have the potential to be strong playmakers on the outside. Finally, the defense brings back some experience and talent in the linebacking crew and up front with Matt Crimmins, John Wiet, Keegan Ashley and Jimmy Tilson all back in the mix. Middlebury will need to get better push up front and more penetration this season, as last year’s defense ranked in the bottom two in the conference in both rushing yards allowed and sacks.
Matchup to Watch: Billy Chapman vs. Bowdoin linebackers
Chapman is the best tight end in the conference and will undoubtedly see a number of double teams. If Cardew and Cleary can stay with the versatile tight end, the Polar Bears will force Foote to his second and third options, allowing more time for an inexperienced defensive line to establish some form of pass rush.
Prediction: Middlebury 28 – Bowdoin 24
This has the makings of being a very good game. I think both teams are improved from last season, but ultimately Middlebury’s offensive continuity and an inexperienced Polar Bears’ defensive line will be the difference in this one. If Bowdoin can get consistent pressure on the quarterback and White makes plays on offense, the Polar Bears will leave Vermont 1-0. In the end, though, I think the pillars of this Middlebury offense, Moores, Chapman and Foote will lay the foundation the Panthers’ first win.