Heading into this past weekend, we knew one of the title contenders would end up having to add a tally to the L column, but I truly didn’t think the streak would end for Amherst on Saturday. Well, I was wrong, and so were other Panther doubters – Middlebury is for real (like, for real for real), and Trinity better watch their back, because Coach Ritter’s squad is gunning for the throne. If everything happens as expected between now and Week 6 (which is never a certainty in NESCAC football), Trinity and Middlebury will face off as the two remaining undefeated teams, which could very well be the title match. However, 25% of the NESCAC season stands between now and Week 6, so let’s focus on the here and now.
Elsewhere in the conference, things have started to shake out a bit more, and we have four current groups of teams at this point: Class A, the undefeated teams – Middlebury, Trinity, and Tufts; Class B, the defeatable title contenders – Amherst and Wesleyan, who both stand at 2-1; Class C, the middle of the pack contenders – Bates and Colby, both 1-2 with their sights set on winning the CBB Title, and potentially 4 to 6 win seasons if they can pull off an upset or two; and finally, Class D – the winless group, who are still hoping to climb out of the basement into Class C. There is plenty of time left for teams to shift between these groups, but as of now, this is where we stand:
1.) Middlebury (3-0)
A rightfully earned top spot for the Panthers after ending Amherst’s win streak this past weekend. Without a doubt, this is the most impressive win of any 3-0 team; the only other W in the conversation is Tufts’ solid win against Wesleyan. I found Jared Lebowitz ‘18 to be decently impressive through two weeks, but I am not swayed by the stats of quarterbacks running up the score. This weekend, Lebowitz threw for 261 yards against the league’s best defense, adding 3 touchdowns and just one interception. Not only did he have three TDs, but each was thrown to a different Panther, highlighting Lebowitz’ field vision and the receiving corps’ depth. Additionally, Carter Massengill ‘20 maintained his perfect kicking accuracy on the season, nailing 3 extra points and 2 field goals. If Massengill continues to be this consistent for the Panthers, it will be that much easier for them to hold off their opponents until the likely championship game in Week 6 against Trinity.
2.) Trinity (3-0)
Trinity did what they had to do this weekend as they remained unbeaten against Hamilton. The Bantams are now scoring at a league-best 37.7 PPG clip, but that number will surely be bumped down this weekend against a pretty solid Tufts defense. I’d be foolish to omit the fact that Trinity’s opponents after three weeks are a combined 1-8 on the season. With that being said, Trinity leads the league not only in scoring, but also in points allowed, so they are clearly asserting their dominance over inferior teams. This weekend will be the first true test for Coach Jeff Devanney’s team as they host Tufts in The Coop, and I don’t think I’m really surprising anyone here by noting that the Bantams will be focused on limiting the damage that Chance Brady ‘17 can do on offense. Getting penetration is one of Trinity’s strengths, however, especially when their opponents drop back to pass, evidenced by their league leading 5.0 sacks per game. We know Trinity is good, but like Middlebury had to, the Bantams have to beat another top team if they want Week 6 to be the battle for the championship belt.
3.) Amherst (2-1)
Sure they lost, but Amherst lost to one of the best teams in the league in a game that went down to the wire and was ultimately decided by a single point. The last thing Coach Mills’ team should be doing is panicking right now. For one thing, we’re still under halfway through our season, and Amherst is allowing just 12.3 PPG. THEY ARE ALSO ONLY ALLOWING 0.7 RUSHING YPG AFTER WEEK 3. That’s not a typo. Less than one rushing yard per game. This defense is going to win them games, not to mention that Amherst has an absolutely studly offense. The Purple and White have just had pretty tough luck with injuries at the quarterback position this year; Amherst lost Reece Foy ‘18 in preseason to a knee injury, and Alex Berluti ‘17 hurt his knee in Week 2 with his time table TBD. So what did Nick Morales ‘19, the next QB in line, do on Saturday? He stepped in for his first career start against Middlebury. How’d he do? Oh, he was just 27-38 for 269 yards, a touchdown, and just one interception. His longest pass was a simple 71 yard gain. Maybe I throw too many New England Patriots references in my blogs, but my good friend Bill Belichick likes to emphasize the “next man up” mentality that his team abides by. Maybe Coach Mills is deploying the same mentality in the Amherst locker room? Regardless, Amherst will be just fine, especially once Morales gains comfort and confidence in the pocket.
4.) Tufts (3-0)
Tufts dropped below Wesleyan in last week’s power rankings after a less than stellar win against Bates at home. Thus began the gossip that Tufts lucked out against Wesleyan, and that it showed in their underwhelming performance against a Bates team that they should theoretically have blown out. Even I, a self-proclaimed homer (after Pete shamed me into admitting it), was beginning to doubt Tufts’ ability to put up points. How’d the Jumbos respond? They responded exactly like a title contender should and scored 41 points against Bowdoin this weekend. After Week 3, it’s clear that the Bates game was the fluke, not the Wesleyan game. I am still skeptical of the offense, as they seem to rack up way more three and outs than normal for a 3-0 team (13-47, or 28%, on 3rd down conversions), but as of now it hasn’t hurt them. They’re going to need to show some grit against Trinity this weekend to continue climbing in the power rankings, and more importantly, to continue adding to the win column.
5.) Wesleyan (2-1)
Wesleyan will feel slighted by this drop from #4 back to #5. They have won by 28 and 31 in Weeks 2 and 3 respectively, while Tufts had a slip up against Bates. So why the drop? As I mentioned above, Tufts showed that they do in fact know how to handle the bottom tier teams. To be honest, these big wins against the league’s weaker teams just don’t speak as loudly to me as wins against teams of similar talent. What keeps coming to mind is the opener, and specifically, the way that Wesleyan absolutely fell apart in the 4th quarter against Tufts. Holding onto a late lead is not really applicable in blowouts, so Wesleyan has not been tested again in this regard. The ability to stay composed in a close game with a late lead is an area that I see as a weakness for the Cardinals at this point, and I will continue to see it as such until they prove me wrong. I will say that Mark Piccirillo ‘19 has really impressed me so far this year, and the fact that he can pass and run equally effectively is one of Wesleyan’s biggest weapons. If the Cardinals can lean on Piccirillo late in close games, I don’t think they’ll have another disappointing blown lead.
6.) Bates (1-2)
A blowout loss, a close loss to a top tier team, and a good win against a team of similar skill level. Bates is improving each week, and their upward-trending level of play is in large part due to the performance of quarterback Sandy Plashkes ‘19. Bates has a total of 6 touchdowns this year – guess how many of those touchdowns Plashkes was involved in? You got it, all 6. Plashkes has thrown for 5 TDs and he ran in the remaining score. It’s as simple as this: as Plashkes goes, Bates goes, and if he is dialed in like he was on Saturday against Williams, Bates can stick right with anyone in this league. Tread lightly, Wesleyan. NESCAC Football is about momentum, and the Bobcats are hot right now.
7.) Colby (1-2)
After a last second win in Week 1, the Mules have lost their steam. The Colby defense allowed 35+ points in consecutive weeks on their way to 21 and 31 point losses – not a good sign for a team that heads to Amherst this week. What has hurt Colby thus far is their mediocre aerial attack. The Mules are only throwing for 136.3 YPG, which has made them pretty one-dimensional as a whole. As a result, they have struggled to score the ball, evidenced by their 9.7 PPG total, which qualifies for second worst in the NESCAC. The Fieldston School alum Jabari Hurdle-Price ‘17 is doing all he can, but he is finding less room to work in 2016 as defenses have honed in on him after his breakout season last year. Colby’s workhorse back is most effective when Coach Michaeles engineers a high-volume gameplan for him, so if Colby can open up the field a bit through their passing game, it will create opportunities for a more efficient Hurdle-Price.
8.) Williams (0-3)
A tough spot to be after a tough start for Williams in 2016, but look at the bright side, guys: you’re the highest ranked 0-3 team! That’s no accident on our part, and it’s not just because I’m from Western Mass either. No, Williams has played a grittier brand of football than the other winless teams, but unfortunately for the Ephs things have bounced the wrong way time and again. One word to describe Week 1 for Williams: devastating. After allowing an early score, the Williams D buckled down long enough for the offense to put together a late drive which gave the Ephs the lead with 1:46 remaining. The lead lasted all of 1:41 until Colby won on a last second field goal. Week 2 was just rubbing salt in the wound for Williams as they had to play Trinity in a game that ended in a beating, but it should definitely be noted that Williams played the Bantams the toughest of Trinity’s three opponents thus far. Week 3 was another good game for Williams, but they just couldn’t put together any complete drives in the 4th quarter, ending in a well-fought defeat. Connor Harris ‘18 has been a bright spot for the Williams offense for the tailback spot, and he will be looked to increasingly if he keeps up his 66.3 rushing YPG average, which currently qualifies him for the fourth highest average in the ‘CAC.
9.) Bowdoin (0-3)
I guess if there is a positive for Bowdoin it’s that each game has gotten closer than the previous one, with scoring differentials descending from games one through three. The negative is that the Polar Bears lost by 20 in their closest loss of the season this weekend against Tufts. Bowdoin has the league’s worst defense, a result of their porous secondary allowing 309.7 YPG through the air. To put that in perspective, the second worst pass defense in the league, Hamilton, allows 236.0 YPG. Part of this issue is that Bowdoin is not getting penetration in the backfield consistently, a fact that certainly plays into their poor defense. Offensively, Bowdoin ranks second to last in YPG on the ground. This may not be for lack of running talent, but rather that, like the Jacksonville Jaguars, Bowdoin is constantly playing from behind and so they have to air the ball out to try to catch up (there’s a reason Blake Bortles is my fantasy quarterback). Bowdoin faces off with fellow winless team Hamilton this weekend, and I suspect they will have more success moving the ball in a better matchup for them than Middlebury, Amherst, or Tufts was.
10.) Hamilton (0-3)
Someone had to be last, and Hamilton’s 4.0 PPG average kind of makes them a front runner for this undesirable title. I will say that Hamilton rivals Bowdoin for toughest opening schedule, as the Continentals traveled to Amherst and then Wesleyan before finally getting a home game against Trinity, but they’ve only scored two times in three games. That’s no bueno. Looking ahead, Hamilton has a chance to make a run here as they face Bowdoin, Colby, and Williams in the coming weeks, but they are going to have to improve on both their highly permeable defense and their abysmal ability to move the football. Again, Hamilton’s rushing attack could be suffering from the Jacksonville Jaguars effect, but it’s hard to excuse a 39.7 rushing YPG average. The Continentals have a prime opportunity this weekend to turn their ship around, but they have to take advantage or they may find themselves in a hole they can’t dig themselves out of.