Tomorrow, the Middlebury football team will play in Hartford, Connecticut on the Jessee/Miller Field where Trinity last lost in 2001, 45 games ago. Both teams are 5-0 — the last two remaining undefeated teams in not just the NESCAC, but also in the Northeast Region of Division III football. While both teams will have two games to play after this weekend, Saturday’s matchup will almost certainly determine the NESCAC champion. If there has been a bigger game in the history of the Middlebury football program, it probably happened a long, long time ago.
Weather forecast: 65° and partly cloudy with 10% precipitation.
Keys to the game: For Middlebury, everything starts with … well, the start. In five games this season the Panthers have scored just one opening drive touchdown and have not kicked so much as a field goal on their last four opening possessions. The passing game has taken a while to get in rhythm, something Middlebury cannot afford to do against the number one-ranked pass defense in the NESCAC. Trinity is geared to stop the pass and will take advantage of miscommunication or inaccuracy early. In last year’s 42-7 Trinity win the Bantams intercepted backup quarterback Andy Dittrich twice in the Panthers’ first three possessions, returning both of them for touchdowns. Safety Rae Haynes and linebacker Stephen Goniprow, who were responsible for the interceptions, were named first- and second-team All-NESCAC last year, respectively, and both return to the vaunted Trinity defense.
Therefore, Mac Foote and his receivers will need to be in sync from the start. Take a look at how Foote’s numbers look during the team’s first three drives in five games this season (essentially his first quarter stats) and drives four through six (the rest of the first half). (Note that drives 1-3 includes stats from 15 possessions and four through six includes stats from 17 possessions, encompassing the rest of the first half this season.)
Mac Foote on drives 1-3: 36/60 269 yards, 4 TDs, 2 INTs, 60% completion, 4.5 yards per attempt
Foote’s first drive stats: 9/19 65 yards 1 TD, 1 INT
Foote’s second drive stats: 12/16 165 2 TD 1 INT
Foote’s third drive stats: 15/25 188 yards, 1 TD (1 FG)
Mac Foote on drives 4-6: 49/76 533 yards, 6 TDs, 1 Rushing TD, 0 INTs, 64% completion, 7.0 yards per attempt
Foote’s fourth drive stats: 20/32 234 yards, 2 TD (2 FGA)
Foote’s fifth drive stats: 7/14 69 yards, 1 TD
Foote’s sixth drive stats: 9/12 100 yards, 2 TDs
Foote’s final half drives (3): 13/18 124 yards, 1 TD, 1 Rushing TD
While Foote’s numbers are impressive almost any way you look at them, the two big differences are his touchdown to turnover ratio (2:1 in the first quarter and 7:0 in the second) and his yards per attempt (4.5 in the first quarter, 7.0 in the second). When you compare these numbers to his season stats (64% completion rate, 7.6 yards per attempt and a 22:5 touchdown-to-turnover ratio) it is evident that he is overcoming slow starts during which his numbers are down across the board. While he has been a prolific passer in quarters two through four, Foote will need to be accurate from the first snap against Trinity.
On the other side of the ball, Middlebury will need to limit the NESCAC’s number one rushing attack. Trinity running back Evan Bunker (first team All-NESCAC in 2011) leads the conference in rushing, averaging 156 yards per game and a conference best 5.9 yards per carry. He is complemented by Ben Crick who is second in the NESCAC averaging 5.8 yards per carry and fourth in the conference with 71.4 yards per game. As a team the Bantams are rushing for nearly 300 yards per game. Last year the Panthers defense managed to contain Bunker and Crick, limiting them to just 88 yards total and one touchdown between the two. A season later, that will be considerably more difficult as Bunker has been even more dynamic in his third year, running behind a talented offensive line, which features two returning All-NESCAC players, Mike Valenti and Tim O’Brien. Freshman linebacker Tim Patricia will have his hands full and will need to play assignment-sound football. Patricia and the Middlebury defense have showed that they can stop the run at times this season, holding Ryan Silva and Amherst — then leading the NESCAC in rushing — to just 77 yards and 146 total on the ground. Similarly to Amherst, the Bantams running game sets up the pass. Wide receiver AJ Jones is among the most dangerous weapons in the NESCAC on the outside. He did most of the damage offensively in the Middlebury matchup last season for the Bantams, catching 5 passes for 155 yards and two touchdowns. Jones has just 8 catches on the season, but is averaging an incredible 30.9 yards per catch. Trinity quarterback Ryan Burgess, meanwhile, averages 9.0 yards per attempt.
For Trinity, the keys to winning are interconnected. The Bantams will need to run the ball effectively to set up play action and throw the ball and in order to run the ball effectively they will have to slow down the Middlebury offense. To do that, Trinity will need to get pressure on Mac Foote, which is a tall order given Foote’s ability to beat the blitz with screens, check downs and quick throws. If Trinity is to successfully disrupt Foote in the pocket, it will come with four man rushes. And against a Middlebury offensive line that has allowed just 2 sacks this season, it may be too much to ask from a unit that has sacked the quarterback only 9 times this season.
X Factor: Zach Driscoll, Billy Chapman, Ryan Moores, Remi Ashkar, and John Wiet are all seniors. They have all had distinguished careers at Middlebury. Driscoll, Chapman, and Moores are among the best ever at their position. These seniors have three games remaining in their Middlebury careers, and have never had an opportunity like the one before them tomorrow afternoon. They have all shown an ability to change games, to dominate their position, and tomorrow they will have the perspective and appreciation for the moment that brings out those types of performances. These five have played inspired football all season, but tomorrow has the makings of a defining day for this senior class.
Matchups to watch:
Zach Driscoll vs. the Trinity secondary: Zach Driscoll is having an historic season. Tomorrow will be truly fun to watch as one of the nation’s best wide receivers goes up against one of the nation’s best secondaries. Given Middlebury’s tremendous talent outside, many teams have elected not to double Driscoll. With the team speed of Trinity’s defense the Bantams will have an interesting decision to make. If Driscoll can get open regularly and make plays on the ball in the air, the Middlebury offense will be very hard to stop.
The Middlebury offensive line vs. the Trinity defensive line: I said it before, but it bears repeating: if the Bantams can get pressure (not necessarily sacks, but disrupt the pocket) on a consistent basis, and make Mac Foote throw out of rhythm, they can win this game. If the Panthers’ offensive line keeps Foote on his feet, however, and gives him time and space to pass, Middlebury will win this game and it may not be that close.
Tim Patricia vs. Evan Bunker: When the Middlebury defense does its job as a unit the Mike linebacker makes tackles. Middlebury did a great job setting the edge against Ryan Silva earlier this season against Amherst. Patricia and co. will need to do an even better job tomorrow against Bunker who has better cutback ability than Silva. If too many defenders overpursue the ball, Bunker will carve up the defense in the open cutback lanes. Middlebury has to be assignment sound tomorrow and Tim Patricia’s play will be a huge factor in that.
Prediction: Middlebury 35 – Trinity 21 (Jeff says Middlebury 34 – Trinity 30). If the Panthers are going to win this game it will be by getting out to an early lead and forcing Trinity to throw the ball more than its used to. A close game favors Trinity in a lot of ways: it allows them to run the ball; it keeps the defense fresh; and it will keep the crowd — which could reach 8000 tomorrow — in the game. The home team can win without playing flawless football. Middlebury will have to play as well as they have at any point this season to win this game and I think their level of focus and preparation heading into this week manifests itself in the game from the very beginning. Opportunities to end the nation’s longest home winning streak while simultaneously sealing the NESCAC championship and most likely a perfect season rarely present themselves in this fashion. Middlebury, led by a great senior class, will be ready.