Trinity (6-0) @ Middlebury (5-1), 1:00 PM, Middlebury, VT
One of the results of the lack of parity in the NESCAC football (and of course the lack of a playoff system) is that every year there is a regular season game that serves as a de facto “Super Bowl” for the league. The two best teams in the league meet in a game that pretty much decides who will finish with the best record in the league. The 2017 iteration of that game is this weekend, when 6-0 Trinity travels down to Alumni Field to take on 5-1 Middlebury.
Trinity has spent the whole season as the best team in the league. They have gutted out defensive battles against the two high quality opponents they’ve played (Williams and Tufts) and have absolutely blasted lower tier teams, including a 63 point performance against Bowdoin last weekend. However, Williams was able to make their offense look very fallible. They did this by using a strong defensive front to shut down star RB Max Chipouras ’19. Chipouras only had 80 yards on 28 carries against the Ephs, by far his least efficient performance of the season. Shutting down Chipouras forces QB Sonny Puzzo ’18 to play more traditionally, instead of running outside the pocket and making big plays. Puzzo is easily good enough to do this and win (as Williams saw,) but it eliminates a huge part of their offense.
Unfortunately, the Trinity defense has yet to look fallible. They have forced 16 turnovers on the season, and have players all over the field who are threats to turn those turnovers into touchdowns. They don’t have any real statistical standouts on the defensive end–although that is in large part due to the fact that their starters rarely play fourth quarters–but LB Liam Kenneally ’18 is terrific in coverage and in stopping the run game. And more importantly for the match up with Jared Lebowitz ’18 and the pass-happy Panthers is their dominant secondary. Dominique Seagears ’18 is one of the most dangerous coverage men in the league, with two interception return touchdowns to his credit. He and Samier Madden ’19 form a duo that should give Lebowitz trouble like Lionel Richie would–all night long.
As dominant as Trinity has been, Middlebury has been equally so, except for a fatal five minute stretch in the fourth quarter against Williams. Middlebury’s offense is based around Lebowitz and his squadron of speedy, tall receivers, and it is a well oiled machine when all the pieces are healthy. Middlebury averages the second most points and yards per game (second to Trinity, but still,) and that is despite a mediocre rushing attack. That is also despite a schedule that has included Williams and Amherst, two of the three best defenses in the league by any statistical measure. Against Amherst, who leads the league in sacks and is second in yards per game, Lebowitz threw three touchdowns and was only sacked twice. That is what makes this game so exciting; these two teams are both best suited to beat each other. Just as it should be in the Super Bowl.
Key Player for Middlebury: LB Aaron Slodowitz ’18
This pick is a very optimistic one. Lebowitz left the Bates game halfway through with an ankle injury, forcing backup Jack Meservy ’19 to fill in, which he did admirably. If Lebowitz is out, Meservy immediately becomes the key, as Middlebury cannot win this game without a great QB performance. But on the assumption that Lebowitz will play, Slodowitz and the rest of the linebackers become the key. Much of Middlebury’s defensive success rests on the backs of the three star senior linebackers; Slodowitz, Wesley Becton ’18 and John Jackson ’18. Becton and Jackson are particularly valuable in coverage, leaving Slodowitz free to crush running backs. Which he does with aplomb. Having fully recovered from a knee injury last season, Slodowitz had 18 tackles against the run-dominant Bates and leads the team with 46 overall. He doesn’t get in the backfield much, with 0 sacks on the year, but Becton and DL Alex Norton ’20 handle that. Slodowitz simply tackles dudes, and as Williams showed the league, the way to hang with Trinity is tackle one dude; Max Chipouras.
Key Player for Trinity: WR Koby Schofer ’20
Assuming that Middlebury succeeds in slowing down Chipouras considerably, Trinity will have to throw the ball, especially to keep up with the Panthers breathless, pass-heavy scheme. This brings up the closest thing that Trinity has to a weakness; they really only have one weapon in the passing game, and that is Schofer. He is quite a weapon, however. Despite playing very little in the blowout of Bowdoin (as was the case with several Bantam starters,) Schofer is still fourth in the league in receptions with 35 and fifth in yards with 508. Schofer is actually quite similar to Middlebury WR Conrado Banky ’19. They are both smaller receivers who beat often larger defenders with quickness and terrific hands. The difference is that Middlebury has other receivers to pick up the slack from Banky (or replace him if he’s injured.) Schofer is so far and away Trinity’s best pass catcher that Middlebury will most likely double team him. In a game that is shaping up to be an aerial affair, Schofer is going to have to get around those double teams and give Puzzo a solid target.
Conrado Banky has missed two games in a row, and his status for this one is very much in doubt. If he misses the game, Middlebury will be again looking for big performances from Maxwell Rye ’20 and Jimmy Martinez ’19, two large, fast targets for Lebowitz. Additionally, TE Frank Cosolito ’20 will be a big part of the passing attack. Cosolito has improved every week, and has a knack for showing up in big games. He had six catches for 58 yards and TD against Amherst. If Banky does play, all these guys will be key supplementary targets, and the Middlebury offense may well be unstoppable.
Special teams are going to be a key part of this game. Trinity K Eric Sachse ’19 is one of the best in the league (5/8 FG and 26/28 XP,) giving their offense a dimension in close games that many other teams don’t have. Additionally, Colin Beaulieu ’21 is a dangerous return man whom Middlebury has to watch out for. Of course, he is nowhere near as dangerous as Jimmy Martinez. Martinez has two of the four return touchdowns in the whole league this year, and the only kickoff return touchdown. Even when he doesn’t score, Martinez is constantly putting Middlebury in terrific field position, either through returns or by forcing bad kicks due to teams trying to avoid him. On the other end, P/WR Maxwell Rye has a huge leg, and often pinned Williams deep in their own territory. He will have to do this against Trinity, as giving them a short field is a death sentence. This is the kind of game that should come down to a single play, and that play may well be on special teams. In case you couldn’t tell, I’m very excited. I hope you all are as well.
Predicted Score:* Middlebury 27, Trinity 24
*This prediction is made with the assumption that Lebowitz is healthy and will play.