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Will last year's 24-3 Middlebury victory provide the road map to today's game?

Will last year’s 24-3 Middlebury victory provide the road map for today’s game or will the Lord Jeffs’ find better balance? (Jiayi Zhu/The Middlebury Campus)

For better or worse there is no NESCAC title game, no final matchup of unbeaten or one-loss teams to determine who wins the conference. So in a year where, for the first time in some time, there are no clear-cut favorites—Wesleyan will have to do more than clobber Tufts and Hamilton to earn that distinction, and Trinity has been far from dominant—a Week 3 matchup between unbeatens Amherst and Middlebury will likely have enormous ramifications for the rest of the season. The first two weeks of NESCAC play may have provided a structure for our expectations, but this is the first game that has conference title implications.

What We Know

Two seasons ago, when Amherst and Middlebury combined to score 55-first-half points in what was ultimately a 48-28 Lord Jeffs victory, it would have been hard to imagine the transformation that both of these teams have undergone. Then, Amherst and Middlebury were the top two scoring offenses, each averaging a shade under 30-points per game. The difference between NESCAC champions and a .500 record was on the defensive side of the ball, where the Lord Jeffs were the second-ranked defense, allowing 12.6 points per game and the Panthers were the league’s worst, hemorrhaging 31.2 points per game.

Two years later, the script has, to a degree, flipped. Now the two teams share a dominant defense, but the distinction is on offense. While Middlebury is averaging just two more points per game (27 vs. 25) than the Lord Jeffs, the two teams have scored their points in very different ways. The Panthers are averaging 433 yards of total offense, trailing only Wesleyan in that statistic. Amherst, meanwhile, is 7th in the NESCAC—and far closer to Hamilton (10th) than Tufts (3rd)—averaging 280.5 yards per game. And though the Lord Jeffs’ defense has helped in that area, leading the league with seven interceptions, and, one can assume, providing the offense with great starting field position, Amherst’s scoring output is likely unsustainable.

Their defense, however, is as good as the numbers suggest. The Lord Jeffs have playmakers at every level defensively, but are most dangerous when the ball is in the air. Six different players have recorded interceptions for Amherst and that does not include star cornerback Landrus Lewis, who was the conference’s premier cover corner before he got injured a year ago. From his free safety position, Max Dietz has already recorded two interceptions as well as four pass breakups. The secondary is further bolstered by strong linebacking play, where WILL (weakside linebackeallr) Chris Tamasi leads the team with 16 tackles, 4.5 of which have come in the opposing team’s backfield. Playing opposite Tamasi at the SAM is Danny Chun, who has already recorded a pick-six and is an effective pass rusher, recording three sacks a season ago. While Chun hasn’t gotten home yet on the blitz, his teammates have to the tune of a NESCAC-best 7 sacks in two games. The Lord Jeffs defense should not be overlooked.

Nor should Middlebury’s. While the Panthers aren’t going to shed their reputation as an offensive team anytime soon, it has been the defense that has carried the team to a 2-0 record. A week after forcing four Bowdoin turnovers in a throttling 27-5 victory over the Polar Bears, Doug Mandigo’s unit kept Colby at bay, holding an upstart Mules team to just 10 points, while contributing six points of their own in a game where the offense shuffled its feet for two quarters. Make no mistake, the Panthers are 1-1 had their defense not played at an elite level. Middlebury likely does not have as many playmakers as the Lord Jeffs, particularly in the secondary, but what they lack in talent they more than make up for in intelligence and fundamentals. Middlebury’s rotation of linebackers have been tremendous as sophomores Jake Clapp (DE/OLB) and Tim Patricia (MIKE) have combined to make 26 tackles, including 4 tackles for a loss, of which 2 were sacks. Jake Vacovec has been solid playing next to Patricia and on the other side, Matt Crimmins and Zach Faber have each made big plays in their situational roles.

The biggest revelation, however, has been on the outside where Middlebury entered the season without its two starting cornerbacks from a season ago. Freshman Nate Leedy leads the team in tackles and pass breakups and has been equally strong filling in against the run as he has been dropping back in coverage. You don’t see many cornerbacks as seniors who can cut down a runner like Justin Ciero on one play and break up a pass intended for Luke Duncklee in single coverage on the next. Leedy has the makings of a special player. Playing behind him is one of the better safety tandems in the conference as Matt Benedict and Jared Onouye play yin and yang. At free safety, Benedict plays over the top more than Onouye, who lines up more often as a fifth linebacker and will take more risks around the football. Those differences aside, the two are pretty interchangeable and both have made key plays this season.

What We Think We Know

This isn’t likely to be a barnburner like it was two years ago. In fact, it would surprise us if either team reached the 24-point mark that Middlebury achieved in 2012, in a 21-point victory over Amherst. Unfortunately for the Lord Jeffs, what ailed them then will likely be an issue again today. Quarterback Max Lippe completed just 6 of his 15 pass attempts for a total off 66 yards, or an average of 4.4 yards per attempt. Normally the Lord Jeffs would have fared better just running the ball, but that wasn’t the case either as Amherst gained 146 yards on 43 carries, an average of 3.4 per carry. Of course the offense could have improved between then and now, but it’s hard to ignore Amherst’s two-game output in 2012, when they scored 60 points against Hamilton and Bowdoin, 10 more than they did this year. Will the Lord Jeffs’ offense give their a chance to win the game in 2013?

Matchups to Watch

Mac Foote vs. the Amherst secondary: This is very much a matchup of strength on strength. Foote remains the NESCAC’s most prolific offensive player, despite a somewhat disjointed start to the season. He and his receivers have not always been on the same page and a handful of overthrows and drops has not helped. Foote and company cannot afford to be slow out of the gate today as an opportunistic Lord Jeffs secondary will prey on some of the mistakes they have gotten away with during the first two games. Undoubtedly Foote would like to find Brendan Rankowitz, his most reliable receiver, early and often in this game. The Lord Jeffs are one of two NESCAC teams that can matchup well with the Panthers’ talent on the outside. What they cannot account for, however, is an accurate Foote, who will—if given time—carve up even the best defense.

The Middlebury offensive line vs. the Lord Jeffs’ front seven: “If given time.” The offensive line has done a tremendous job over the past three seasons keeping Foote upright. Some of that credit, however, must also go to Foote, who, as a pocket passer, is the Peyton Manning of the NESCAC. Foote has a quick release, often diagnoses the defense and knows where he wants to go with the ball pre-snap, and is more mobile than people give him credit for. However, if the offensive line, which has been strong so far, is constantly giving ground to the Amherst front seven, Foote will be forced to go to his first and second reads, which will significantly limit what he is able to do in the pocket.

Max Lippe vs. Tim Patricia: The Amherst game was something of a coming out party for Patricia a year ago, when the then-freshman had 12 tackles and an interception (of DJ Petropolous). Lippe is an active quarterback and, at 6’6”, a load to bring down. Lippe won’t be outrunning Patricia—Justin Ciero tried and failed to do so a week ago—but Patricia will still have his hands full with Lippe’s size and the added nuance of the option.

X-Factors: Jake Clapp and Zach Faber

Clapp and Faber have been two of Middlebury’s best players defending the run so far this season. Faber splits time with Crimmins at one outside linebacker spot and plays predominantly in running situations, which, against Amherst, will be common. Clapp, on the other end, has been the Panthers’ most disruptive player defensively and needs to build upon his performances in the first two games. If Clapp and Faber can disrupt the Amherst backfield, this might just be another Middlebury blowout.

Final Word(s): Middlebury 20 – Amherst 14

This will likely be a defensive struggle, but ultimately the Panthers are too talented offensively and too disciplined defensively. If Amherst brings pressure, there are few coaches better at breaking pressure with his backs than Bob Ritter and he has a dynamic new runner in Joey Zelkowitz who has been really effective as a pass catcher out of the backfield. On the other side of the football, Amherst does not have the quarterback or the athletes to really threaten Middlebury over the top and that defense thrives on limiting offenses to their underneath options. If the Lord Jeffs can run the ball effectively in this game they have a shot, but if they fall behind early and have to put the game on Lippe’s shoulders like they did a year ago, this could get out of hand.

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