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Resurrecting the Route 7 Rivalry

The Ephs have struggled mightily offensively, in part because they haven't replaced players like Darren Hartwell (above).

The Ephs have struggled mightily on offense, in part because they haven’t replaced players like Darren Hartwell (above).

Saturday, October 12, 1:30pm

Bob Ritter had never beaten Williams before last year’s 30-13 demolishing of the Ephs in Williamstown dropping Williams to a previously unimaginable 1-3 record. Well, a year later the Ephs are in even worse shape, traveling to Youngman Field 0-3 and attempting to avoid their first 0-4 start since 1987. Just how bad are things for Williams? They’ve scored all of four offensive touchdowns this year, good for an average of just 10.3 points per game, edging only Bowdoin and Hamilton in that category.

The Ephs have been simply awful at the quarterback position, where Tom Murphy and Adam Marske have combined to throw 9 interceptions and just one touchdown. Perhaps even more perplexing, Williams has been unable to develop any kind of running game, rushing for an average of 74 yards per game on 2.3 yards per carry, the worst mark in the conference. Only Middlebury averages fewer rushing yards per game than Williams.

And speaking of Middlebury, things have hardly been smooth offensively for the Panthers. The offense has yet to really establish an identity—and I’m talking about something more substantial than a passing offense—and after an historic 2012, 2013 looks bleak by comparison. The Panthers have racked up the yards—more than 450 of them per game, to be precise—but have failed to finish drives, particularly in the red zone, where the team’s inability to run the ball has been most stark. Only Wesleyan has accumulated more red zone drives than Middlebury this year, but only Tufts and Bowdoin have scored touchdowns at a lower rate in the red zone than the Panthers. While Middlebury was able to mask many of its offensive issues against Bowdoin and Colby, they were exploited by Amherst last week as Middlebury’s inability to capitalize on red zone opportunities turned the Panthers’ strong start into a Lord Jeffs rout.

Where Middlebury’s offense has faltered, however, the defense has shined. Even in last week’s 37-16 loss, the defense was impressive, forcing 6 three-and-outs from the Lord Jeffs, all the while having to account for tilted field position, the product of five turnovers and 146 yards of interception returns by the Amherst defense. The statistics may not make a strong case, but the Middlebury defense belongs among the conference’s elite units.

The same cannot be said about Williams, who have been gashed on the ground, surrendering more than 179 yards per game to opposing runners. Granted, the numbers deserve some qualification as the Ephs have already played two of the NESCAC’s three best ground games in Bates and Trinity as well as a capable Colby team with multiple backfield threats. The same qualification in reverse must be applied to Williams’ artificially stingy pass defense, which has allowed a NESCAC-low 139 yards per game through the air. Perhaps a better measure of Williams’ pass defense is the 5.9 yards per attempt allowed, which is only slightly lower than the Middlebury offense’s 6.2 yards per attempt, the fourth-best mark in the conference.

Needless to say, neither team enters this game playing very good football, which makes evaluating both—and particularly Williams—that much more difficult.

Three Questions

1) Will Mac Foote (and the offense) find his 2012 form?
80 percent of Mac Foote is better than any other NESCAC quarterback, and so far that’s what we’ve seen from the 2012 NESCAC Player of the Year. Jeff and I discussed this on our radio show last weekend, but Mac—and quarterbacks in general—probably receive too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they go poorly. Without going back and analyzing tape, it’s impossible to know whether the offense’s struggles stem from poor protection, missed reads by the quarterback, sloppy rote running by wide receivers or play calling woes from the coaching staff. In the case of the 2013 Panthers, it has likely been a combination of all of these things. So while it’s not quite fair to place it all on Mac’s shoulders, he is the most obvious indication of how the entire offense is playing, and thus far it has been running at around 80 percent. As we’ve already highlighted, the biggest area of concern are the struggles in the red zone.

2) Can Williams develop any offensive rhythm against Middlebury?
Consider us skeptical. The Middlebury defense is enjoying a stellar season and has been tough against both the rush and the pass. Adding to the intrigue here is whether Marske or Murphy or someone else will start. The Panthers played a central role in Marske’s benching last season, intercepting the then-junior three times. Murphy, however, has hardly been an improvement, completing less than 50 percent of his passes and throwing 6 interceptions. In the running game, the Ephs boast an experienced group of ball-carriers, led by Alex Scyocurka, which has made their struggles to run the ball all the more baffling. Undoubtedly teams have been stacking eight and nine men in the box and daring the Ephs to throw the ball, but even so, Scyocurka has All-NESCAC talent.

3) Will the Ephs get pressure on Foote?
As Amherst demostrated a week ago, disrupting the passing game can send the Middlebury offense into a tailspin. Foote was forced to make his throws under pressure and the results were ugly. Williams has one of the more talented defensive lines in the conference and if they pull off the upset, this unit will lead the charge defensively. Adam Datema, Ernest Higginbotham, and James Howe are the big men in the middle, and each has 19 tackles in the first three games. Combined, the trio has two sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss. Neutralizing their impact will be the focus for Middlebury’s offensive line, which could be without senior center Ben Green for a second consecutive week.

Middlebury Players to watch
Cornerback Nate Leedy is already a star three games into his career, and his physical style of play will be a major asset against the run-first Ephs… Wide receiver Brendan Rankowitz has been a model of consistency in the otherwise unsteady Middlebury offense, and there is no reason for his role not to continue to increase… Running back Joey Zelkowitz was injured during the Amherst loss but should be ready to go and could be part of the answer to Middlebury’s red zone woes… Linebacker Zach Faber leads the team with three tackles for a loss and should play a big role in slowing Scyocurka and company.

Final Word
If Williams is going to win this game, it will need big games from Scyocurka and the defensive line. We expect the Middlebury defense to load the box and stifle drives with its now-trademark tackling discipline, and the offense to look for quick releases to Rankowitz and Zelkowitz on early downs. In two career matchups against the Ephs, Mac Foote has averaged 420 passing yards per game, to go along with six touchdowns and one interception. He will stake the Panthers an early lead and Aaron Kelton’s squad lacks the offensive ability to come back.

Middlebury 30, Williams 10

Tune in to our broadcast on WRMC (listen online here or here), where coverage will start at 1:15. We will be joined at halftime by Middlebury College President Ron Liebowitz.

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