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Don’t Put the Cart Before the Mules

Saturday, September 28, 2013: Colby at Middlebury, 1 pm

Can Colby secure a second straight victory to start the season?

Can Colby secure a second straight victory to start the season?

Middlebury has won three of the past four matchups between these teams by an average of 30 points. This is not just another Colby football team, however. The Mules demonstrated that with a resounding 31-8 beatdown of Williams last Saturday—a significant win, even if you’re one among the growing mass that believes Williams is ephed this year. (If you didn’t understand the last sentence, you should probably stop reading here. If you’re peeved because Eph (Eef) is constantly mispronounced and I played on that, then carry right on your way to the comments section below.)

While the  score was certainly definitive, how Colby arrived at the final margin might be even more impressive. The Mules paired a stout defensive line, allowing just 21 net yards rushing on 33 attempts, with an opportunistic secondary that intercepted the Ephs’ quarterbacks four times, including a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown seconds before halftime. In fact, the Colby defense totaled as many points as the Williams offense, adding a first-half safety to the pick six. And while scoring sequence is generally uninformative, Colby’s 31-0 lead until the midway point of the fourth quarter attests to the Mules’ dominance from wire to wire.

More immediately, what problems does Colby pose to Middlebury and how can the Panthers respond?

Keys to the Game

Can Middlebury control Colby at the line of scrimmage?
Given the trouble Williams had running the football, one would be wise to be suspicious of Middlebury’s effectiveness on the ground. The Mules also recorded two sacks against Williams and will likely challenge the Middlebury offensive line whether they’re attacking the line of scrimmage or stepping back in pass protection. On the other side of the ball, Middlebury’s front four has to hold its own at the line of scrimmage and continue to open holes for Tim Patricia and the rest of the linebacking corps to make plays. One of the bright spots of last week’s game was Jake Clapp, a sophomore 3-4 outside linebacker, who played with his head down at the line of scrimmage and helped his team limit Bowdoin to just four yards per carry. Even so, the Panthers will have their hands full containing Colby’s trio of explosive athletes: quarterback Thomas Ciero, running back Thomas Brewster and wide receiver (though really he should be designated simply as an athlete) Luke Duncklee. Duncklee didn’t play in last year’s game, but he ran for 73 yards and a touchdown on six carries as a freshman. Ciero, meanwhile, struggled to run or throw the ball against Middlebury a season ago. While he has undoubtedly progressed since then as a rusher and a passer, the Panthers appear to have a blueprint to contain Ciero. Brewster, a sophomore, was the most effective back for Colby in 2012-13, averaging nearly five yards per carry.

How Middlebury Responds
The Panthers have the personnel and talent to slow down the Colby rushing attack. Expect to see heavy dosages of single-high safety, zone looks with free safety Matt Benedict playing in centerfield and Jared Onouye crashing at the line of scrimmage playing like a fifth linebacker. Speaking of, Tim Patricia may act as a spy on Ciero, mirroring his movements on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. Like so many games, the team that controls the line of scrimmage will likely grab the win. If Colby can open running lanes and keep Middlebury guessing with a mix of run and pass, they will be able to move the ball effectively and keep Mac Foote and company off the field. For the Panthers, there’s a pretty simple antidote to all this: score early and often. One of the keys to Middlebury’s 7-1 season a year ago was building leads that forced run-first teams into passing situations. While Colby is more balanced offensively, it’s hard to see Ciero throwing the ball 40 times in a victory.

Matchup to Watch: Justin Ciero vs. Tim Patricia
We highlighted this above, but Ciero’s performance will likely determine the game. If he is allowed to consistently make plays with both his legs and arm, Colby could shock Middlebury at home. If Ciero is forced to make plays from the pocket and look down the field, it could be a long day for the Mules. Either way this is an excellent early season test for Middlebury and a chance for Colby to announce that it should be considered among that second tier (behind Trinity) of teams.

The X-Factor: Joey Zelkowitz
If you didn’t see Zelkowitz play last week, the freshman running back could be special, particularly in this offense, which uses a combination of screen passes and shovel passes to combat pressure. Foote and head coach Bob Ritter both had high praise for Zelkowitz, who they feel is a different type of player than Middlebury has had out of its backfield in some time. Zelkowitz is a very elusive runner and has next-level quickness when he gets the ball in space. If the Colby front is overly-aggressive, expect to see Zelkowitz catch a steady diet of screens and shovel passes from Foote. And if that happens, watch out—Zelkowitz can break one.

The Final Word(s): Middlebury 21 – Colby 14
The Mules are likely still a year away from contending with the upper echelon of the NESCAC. They will, however, push Middlebury, which was sloppy offensively at times last week. The Panther defense, however, is likely the best it’s been in the past four years (which just means that it’s better than last year’s defense) and may challenge Trinity, Bates and others as the conference’s best. Of course, if Foote and company get off to a fast start at put Colby in a hole early, this game could get ugly.

As usual, Jeff and I will be broadcasting the game for WRMC. If you want to listen to our call, the link to the broadcast is here (click microphone icon).

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    Relative to the Amherst game, I think it will be more important than ever to be multi-dimensional. Amherst is pretty good at pass defense, so it would be nice to get the running game going to keep them off balance. Foote will have an easier time with the Amherst secondary if they also have to guard against the run.

    Thursday, October 3, 2013 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

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