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NESCAC Preview: The Game of the Year

Editors’ Note: A group of writers from around the NESCAC, led by Joe MacDonald (Middlebury) and Adam Lamont (Bowdoin), will be contributing to the blog for the remainder of the football season and hopefully beyond. This post was written by MacDonald, a sophomore at Middlebury and a sports editor of The Middlebury Campus.

A season ago, Amherst crushed the Cardinals’ hopes of an undefeated season, traveling to Middletown, Conn. then-unbeaten Wesleyan and emerging with 17-9 victory. This time around the stakes are even higher as two-thirds of the Little Three boast 4-0 records and NESCAC title hopes.

On paper, this appears to be a matchup of the conference’s two best teams. Wesleyan has the top scoring defense and offense this year, while Amherst is second and third in those categories, respectively.  They are first and third in turnover differential, with Amherst’s league-best +9 differential holding the edge to Wesleyan’s +5. And most directly, Wesleyan’s top-ranked rushing offense (266.0 yards per game) will be trying to break through the wall that is Amherst’s first-ranked rush defense (71.2 yards per game allowed).

Despite losing three starters from the defensive line to graduation in 2013, Amherst’s front seven remains as stout as ever. Robert Perdoni, Max Lehrman and Owen Davis have filled the void along the line of scrimmage, combining for 11 starts over four games, 27 tackles and three Lehrman sacks, which is tied for the league lead. But the Wesleyan offensive line has only surrendered two sacks this year, due in part to the few number of pass attempts for the Cardinals (84, 9th in the NESCAC). The real challenge for Lehrman and co. will be to stop the Cardinals on the ground, where Wesleyan has pummeled its opponents, rushing for 5.7 yards per carry. Only two players in the NESCAC are averaging more than 100 yards rushing per game: Wesleyan juniors Kyle Gibson and LaDarius Drew.

However, take a breath before declaring this the NESCAC Game of the Decade. Neither team has played a particularly challenging schedule, and Wesleyan especially has had the benefit of a few tune-up games, which has contributed to their absurd +35.3 point differential per game. The Cardinals’ opponents are a combined 3-9. They began the season by demolishing Tufts, Hamilton and Colby by a combined 128-15. They handled the gold standard of their early season schedule, Bates, by a comparatively narrow margin of 35-7. There’s no doubt that Wesleyan is a talented squad. The Cardinals return the core of a team that went 5-3 last year, including an overtime loss to NESCAC champions Trinity. Their corps of running backs has remained healthy and effective, and quarterback Jesse Warren is completing 71.8 percent of his passes to an experienced group of receivers in Jay Fabien, Josh Hurwitz and tight end Kevin Hughes. But Amherst has beaten Bowdoin (2-2) and Middlebury (3-1) already this year with relative ease. Bowdoin couldn’t even manage 200 yards against the Jeffs’ D, and although 2012 NESCAC Player of the Year McCallum Foote of Middlebury tossed the rock for 459 yards, he was picked off five times, and the Panthers’ running game plodded to a measly 25-yard performance, on an average of 1.6 yars per rush.

While the Cardinals have obliterated bad teams, the Lord Jeffs have dominated some good competition.

Three Questions:
1) Which numbers should we believe?

As I have just mentioned, there is significant reason to question some of Wesleyan’s statistics on both sides of the ball. The Cardinals managed 3.6 yards per rush against Amherst last year—decent, but not sufficient when you rely so heavily on the ground game. However, the Cardinals rushers are a year older and, seemingly bigger, faster and stronger and I don’t think that they can be bottled up, even by this talented Amherst front seven. This game will be decided in the trenches, unless Jesse Warren can produce some magic of his own. Which brings us to our second question.

2) How many pass attempts will Wesleyan QB Jesse Warren have?

Warren’s season-high in pass attempts came in Week 3 vs. Colby, and hey, the team blasted the Mules 41-0. I don’t think they should come out slinging the ball ala Middlebury, but the Amherst secondary, while opportunistic, will give up yards through the air. The Cardinals need to do what they always do, run the ball effectively and be efficient in the passing game, but I think seeing 30-35 attempts from Warren could make a huge difference. After all, Warren hasn’t thrown a pick in 78 attempts this year.

3) Who wins the turnover battle?

I watched my old high school play football this week, and while its not very high quality football in the grand scheme of things, it nevertheless confirmed my strongest belief about football at any level. The Zebras (I know, embarrassing Editor’s Note: And confusing—what do they call the referees?) beat themselves by turning the ball over. The fact is that turnovers kill teams. Just not these teams. As mentioned, Warren hasn’t thrown a single interception. Wesleyan has fumbled the ball five times, however, losing three. On the other side, Amherst quarterback Max Lippe has only thrown three picks in 120 attempts and the Jeffs have only put the ball on the ground three times, though they’ve lost all three.

As far takeaways are concerned, Amherst is the class of the NESCAC with 15 interceptions. If Wesleyan does go to the air, Warren will have to demonstrate that his spotless record thus far is not the result of a lack of attempts. And while I think Warren will have success through the air, I’d be surprised if the opportune Amherst secondary doesn’t make him pay at least once. I don’t foresee many mistakes in the ground game, but I think Amherst will continue their streak of forcing opposing quarterbacks into mistakes.


Player to Watch: Amherst LB Ned Deane

While the strength of both teams lies in the trenches, Deane will have to make plays against both the run and the pass. Amherst’s leading tackler has done it all so far this season, racking up 36 tackles, 1.5 sacks and an interception. The junior linebacker will have to be a force at every level today.

Prediction: Amherst 28, Wesleyan 14

It’s homecoming weekend for the Lord Jeffs, and I think that atmosphere will contribute to an early lead for Amherst. I’m worried that, if they fall behind the Cardinals will start forcing the ball into the air and that is an unenviable position against this Amherst team. While I do think Warren can have success as a passer, it will come out of the flow of the offense and not in a comeback setting. Color me unimpressed with Wesleyan’s decimation of unremarkable opposition, but rather dazzled by Amherst’s convincing triumphs over Middlebury and Bowdoin.

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    Monday, October 21, 2013 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

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