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Three Keys for Trinity

Trinity (5-0) at Middlebury (4-1), 1pm EST

A year ago, Jeff and I were in Hartford, hoping to document Middlebury’s road to an undefeated season and its first NESCAC title since 2007. Quickly, things went south—Connecticut south. Trinity dominated the game from the outset, thoroughly outplaying Middlebury in every facet of the game, en route to a 45-7 decimation of the Panthers. Following a 42-7 Trinity victory the season before, the Bantams have now outscored the Panthers 87-14 over the past two seasons. McCallum Foote didn’t play in the game two years ago, but the result was shockingly similar in 2012. Foote completed just 18 of 38 attempts for 133 yards with 1 touchdown—a Zach Driscoll catch—and 2 interceptions. On the other side of the football, Trinity ran wild as Evan Bunker and Ben Crick combined for 366 yards from scrimmage. Crick accounted for 198 of those yards, including rushing touchdowns of 66 and 49 yards and a 40-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown on a expertly designed throwback screen pass from quarterback Ryan Burgess.

After consecutive Bantam blowouts, Trinity has created a roadmap for success against the Panthers; dominate the game at the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball; create explosive offensive plays (loosely defined as runs over 12 yards and passes of 20 yards or more); and pressure Foote in the hope that he will make mistakes. The bigger question—and the key to today’s outcome—is can Middlebury negate Trinity’s game plan?

Winning at the Line of Scrimmage: At first glance it would appear unlikely that Middlebury can compete with a Trinity team that has built its identiy by controlling the trenches and imposing its physicality on opponents. But there’s more to controlling the line of scrimmage than what takes place between the hashmarks. If there’s an area where Middlebury has improved between 2012 and 2013, it’s the team’s physicality outside the numbers. Particularly on defense, Middlebury is gaining a reputation as a hard-hitting, no-nonsense team that attacks the line of scrimmage and limits big plays. It starts with corners Will Bain and Nate Leedy who are second and fourth on the teams in tackles, respectively. But the Panthers also boast a pair of talented, tackle-ready safeties in Matt Benedict and Jared Onouye. Onouye makes more noise and is a bigger hitter, but Benedict is as sound a player as there is in the NESCAC. Of course, defensively Middlebury has a number of players who can make plays among the trees as Tim Patricia, Jake Clapp, Matt Crimmins and Bryant Adams combine to form a talented Middlebury front. Whether they can win the battle at the line of scrimmage may decide the outcome of this game.

On the other side of the ball, Middlebury has not been consistent, let alone dominant, but the necessary pieces are nearly all in place. On the outside, Matt Minno has most consistently gotten separation and has been Foote’s first option on third down and in the red zone. He has suffered a couple of big drops and his timing with Foote has not been perfected yet—an issue that plagued Brendan Rankowitz in last year’s loss. Given his size and physicality, Minno will likely be Foote’s go-to target again and must avoid drops and route issues. The other key to mitigating Trinity’s play on the defensive line is running back Joey Zelkowitz, who coach Bob Ritter has utilized in a number of different ways, both out of the backfield and in the slot. If Trinity brings pressure after Foote, expect Ritter to dial up a number of screen- and shovel-passes to break the Bantams pressure. Ultimately, even if the Panthers struggle to control the middle of the field, if they can limit Trinity on the outside—where Crick and wide receiver AJ Jones do the majority of their damage and where the Trinity defense suffocated the Panthers’ wide receivers a year ago—they will have a shot to win this game.

Limiting Trinity’s Explosive Plays: Doug Mandigo’s defense is predicated on stopping big plays. Over the past two seasons, the Panthers have steadily improved in that area—with one notable exception: the loss last year against Trinity. In that game, Burgess had two passes of 40 or more yards for scores, including a 59-yard bomb to Chris Ragone on the second drive of the game that was aided  by some woeful play by the Middlebury secondary. A year later, it’s incredible that despite losing both starting corners from the 2012 team, the Panthers have likely improved at that position heading into this matchup. If Leedy and Bain can keep AJ Jones and Chris Ragone—Trinity’s tandem of explosive wide receivers—in front of them and limit them after the catch, Middlebury will be able to focus on getting penetration and containing the Bantams’ backfield. The Panthers will have to do a much better job wrapping up on Bunker and Crick, but this team is improved in that area. That, combined with Middlebury’s increased physicality on the outside gives them a good chance to limit Trinity’s downfield plays.

The offensive line will need to protect Foote and give him a clean pocket to operate in, for Middlebury to knock off Trinity.

The offensive line will need to protect Foote and give him a clean pocket to operate in, for Middlebury to knock off Trinity.

Creating Separation and Protecting Mac: This, I believe, will be Middlebury’s biggest challenge today. With the exception of Zach Driscoll, no Middlebury receiver was able to create separation in the game a season ago. It was likely Rankowitz’s worst career game, as the then-sophomore was limited to 1 catch for 8 yards, while failing to make plays on balls and routes he normally would. In 2013, however, no receiver has been more consistent than Rankowitz, who has been a sharp route runner and made strong catches in tight windows. He has not, however, consistently been able to get separation. In fairness that may have a lot to do with scheme and route concepts that I am not aware of, but today, Rankowitz will need to flash open for Foote in space in order to help the Panthers move the ball consistently. Minno, meanwhile, needs to be more consistent when the ball is in the air. While he has seemingly been targeted on more plays than any other wide receiver, he and Foote have not connected on a couple of big play opportunities either because of dropped balls, missed route assignments or timing issues. Certainly Minno has been a revelation as a sophomore, stepping into a huge role and performing at an all-conference level, but to win this game he will likely need to be even better than that. The same is true for Billy Sadik-Khan, who burst onto the scene—and down the seam—from his newfound tight end position. As a wide-receiver-tunred-tight-end, Sadik-Khan presents many of the same matchup problems a Jimmy Graham or similarly athletic end would for a defense: he is too big for a defensive back to cover and too fast for a linebacker. However, the one team that may not hold true for is Trinity, who have the size and athleticism, and a talented linebacker corps that will compete with Sadik-Khan on virtually every play. The Bantams demonstrated that last year when they limited All-American tight end Billy Chapman to 4 catches for 32 yards.

Receivers getting separation and making plays is the second half of a twofold process. The first, is protecting Foote and giving him time to survey the field and go through his progressions. While Foote had struggled in this area through much of the first half of the season, he was superb last weekend against Bates, even in the face of regular 5- and 6-man blitzes. The one time Bates did get home, on Middlebury’s second drive, Foote was picked off as his pass was altered by contact on his arm from the oncoming blitzer. Trinity enters the game with just 9 sacks—about the league average—but have limited opponents to a NESCAC-low 137 yards per game through the air and intercepted opposing quarterbacks 10 times. While the Bantams have had far less success against the run, allowing 172 yards per game on the ground (8th in the conference), coach Bob Ritter and the Panthers aren’t about to change their offensive identity. Foote, therefore, must be near perfect today, distributing the ball to his different receivers depending on what the defense gives him. Above all, when he has time, Foote will need to read the defense and deliver an accurate ball, and, when the deep shots are there, drive the ball downfield.

Final Thoughts: How realistic is all of this? It’s not as farfetched as it sounds. Certainly Middlebury will need to be technically sound and play essentially mistake-free football, but the talent disparity between these two teams is not that great, and if Middlebury can force the Bantams into making a mistake or two, and capitalize they way they did last week against Bates—with long, sustained touchdown drives—the Homecoming crowd at Youngman Field at Alumni Stadium may be in for a thrill.

It is worth noting that the expected game-time temperature is in the high-40s with wind gusts close to 20 miles per hour. It is not expected to rain, however. If the weather (or the matchup) has you squeamish, we will have the broadcast on WRMC as usual, which you can listen to here.

2 Comments

  1. wrote:

    Foote is going to be hurried all day, just like last year. And when he does find time in the pocket, Trinity’s defensive backs won’t allow him much opportunity to complete passes. I predict 3 picks and fewer than 150 passing yards for #10. Bantams take this one, 37-14.

    Saturday, October 26, 2013 at 11:53 am | Permalink
  2. wrote:

    Interesting…

    Sunday, October 27, 2013 at 11:15 pm | Permalink

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