Welcome NESCAC fans to the season preview for Middlebury football. After a well-earned 10-7 win in a scrimmage over Dartmouth College, the Panthers are heading full tilt into Homecoming Weekend for their first NESCAC game against the Bowdoin Polar Bears on September 24th.
Lets get to it.
Projected Record: 5-3
Projected Offensive Starters: ( *Nine returning)
QB: Jared Lebowitz ‘18*
RB: Diego Meritus ’19*
WR: Ryan Rizzo ‘17*
WR: James Burk ‘17
WR: Tanner Contois ‘18*
TE: Dan Fulham ‘18
LT: Win Homer ’17*
LG: Will Fleming ’17*
C: Chris McGuire ’17*
RG: Alec Auwaeter ’17*
RT: Andy Klarman ‘17*
Projected Defensive Starters: ( *Seven returning)
CB: Matt Daniel ‘19
SS: Kevin Hopsicker ‘18*
FS: Justin Fahey ‘19
CB: Nate Leedy ‘17*
LB: Addison Pierce ‘17*
LB: Aaron Slodowitz ‘18*
LB: Wes Becton IV ‘18*
DL: Henry Castillo ‘17*
DL: Rob Wood ‘18*
DL: Henry Muter ‘18
DL: Roman Trevino ‘19
Projected Specialists: (*Two returning)
PK: Max Rye ’20
P: Charlie Gordon ’19*
KR/PR: Tanner Contois ‘18*/Jimmy Martinez ‘19
Offensive MVP: Quarterback Jared Lebowitz ’18.
The Las Vegas native transferred from UNLV (a Division 1 program), but with stud Matt Milano ‘16 leading the pack, Lebowitz mostly watched from the sidelines. Now, the D1 transfer has a chance to lead this high-powered Middlebury Offense to a NESCAC title. If the Milano and Matt Minno ’16 combo sheds any light on the situation, we can expect Lebowitz to air it out pretty consistently. Can he get the job done?
Offensive Pressure is on: Running Back Diego Meritus ’19.
As a freshman, Meritus had a great campaign, averaging 57 yards and 2 TD’s per game. With Milano and Minno gone, Meritus has to pick up the offensive reigns until Lebowitz proves his pass ability. Fellow players mentioned that Meritus had an outstanding preseason- hopefully that same energy is displayed against the Polar Bears for the season opener.
Defensive MVP: Cornerback Nate Leedy ’17.
Apparently, Leedy has been an absolute force in camp so far, and he is hitting harder and faster than ever before. After averaging a total of 3.4 tackles per game in his junior year, he is clearly hungry for more in 2016. He is a seasoned veteran in the secondary and will make sure to punish those who come into his airspace. It will be exciting to see if opponents are willing to test his defensive abilities. Watch out for that hit stick.
Biggest game: October 8th vs Amherst @ 1:30pm
Last year the Lord Jeffs handed the Panthers a 24-7 loss, but Middlebury will enjoy home field advantage and have a huge appetite for revenge this season. Lebowitz and Meritus are expected to wreak havoc in the air and on the ground, while the defensive units look to level anyone holding that pig skin. Can’t wait for this NESCAC classic.
Who cares the Minno and Milano graduated? Yes, everybody in the NESCAC knows that they were absolute beasts, but a new era is emerging for Middlebury Football. A talented freshman class is pushing the upperclassmen to compete every single day and everyone is pumped.
“Everyone is really excited to be back out here on the field,” said Wes Becton ’18. “There is definitely a sense that we playing with a chip on our shoulder after falling short of last years expectations. Everyone’s mind is in the right place and we are all focused on achieving potential and hopefully bringing home a NESCAC championship.”
Middlebury’s core strength lies within their offensive line, as they only lost Michael Brady from last year. Win Homer ‘17, Will Fleming ‘17, Chris McGuire ‘17, Alec Auwaeter ‘17 and Andy Klarman ‘17 are total animals looking forward to execute their only job: protect the QB. This unit of experienced seniors is hungry to leave it all on the field in their final season.
Behind this line of massive humans, Meritus will take charge of the running game while Drew Jacobs ‘18, who is back from last year’s knee injury, will compete with Matt Cardew ’18 for time behind the sophomore back. And…obviously, all eyes will be on Lebowitz. The Division 1 transfer will finally have a chance to show why the NESCAC should fear his play. Look for Conrado Banky ‘19 to break out as a reliable target for Lebowitz this season alongside the rest of the veteran receiving corps.
Not only is Middlebury’s offense seemingly stronger than last year as Lebowitz looks to fill Milano’s shoes, but the defense is also making more noise than prior years. Henry Castillo ‘17, Rob Wood ‘18, Henry Muter ‘18 and Roman Trevino ‘19 will man the defensive line this year, but if anybody happens to make it through, Addison Pierce ‘17, Aaron Slodowitz ‘18 and Wes Becton ‘18 will be there to flatten them. Nate Leedy ‘17 and Matt Daniel ‘19 will protect the secondary level alongside Kevin Hopsicker ‘18 and Justin Fahey ‘19.
Naturally, after a 5-3 season, the Panthers might be overlooked. But Lebowitz is ready to take over an offense that is pass heavy. Meritus is ready to build off an outstanding freshman season. Captain Nate Leedy is ready to lead this team, and hopes to prove doubters wrong in 2016.
NESCAC football is back, and we will be anxiously waiting to see if the Panthers play to their potential.
Well, the best that can be said about this weekend’s match ups is that three of the following four games feature teams within one game of each other in the standings. I know, I’m supposed to be a salesman and get you excited for the rest of the article, but I’ve already got your click, so I really don’t care….
I do care, of course, and even though none of the game’s below will factor into the Championship race (barring the upset of the millenium – and I mean that), there’s still a lot of intrigue around these games, and it definitely means something to all of the senior playing their last game of football on Saturday.
No more clichés need be wrought about the sentimental value of this weekend’s games, so let’s get into the meat of the matter.
Four to Watch: Senior Edition
Bates Defensive Lineman Tucker Oniskey ’16
Oniskey has been possibly the Bobcats’ best lineman three years running. The big man has gone from 23 tackles and nine pass break ups in seven games in 2013 to 26 tackles and five break ups in seven games a year ago to 37 tackles and four break ups in his first seven games this year.
Oniskey’s ability to get in the face of the opposing quarterback will be important against Hamilton, which likes to air the ball out downfield. We saw last week how a good secondary can take advantage of Hamilton QB Cole Freeman ’19, who was picked off four times by Middlebury last Saturday. The Bates secondary has been exploited at times this year, although CB Trevor Lyons ’17 has had a pick-six in two straight games. If Oniskey can get pressure on Freeman, Lyons might just get his third INT TD of the season.
Williams WR Mark Pomella ’16
Pomella had been exclusively a quarterback in his first three years in Williamstown. He had hoped to be the team’s starter last season until BC-transfer Austin Lommen ’16 beat him out for the gig. Head Coach Aaron Kelton hinted in the preseason that Pomella could switch roles because of his athleticism, but it took three games for Pomella to finally make the switch. Between Weeks 3-7, Pomella has 33 catches (6.6/game) for 421 yards (84.2/game) and one TD. Pomella has been the team’s clear top option since Week 3. He’s also served as the team’s punt returner, especially with RB Connor Harris ’18 out. He will need a monster game in Week 8 to help the Ephs upset Amherst.
Colby D-Linemen Ryan Ruiz ’16 and Harry Nicholas ’16
Bowdoin’s top three running backs are out for the year, and the Polar Bears rushed for negative six yards last week. They’ve broken 63 yards rushing just once this year. By default, Bowdoin has to throw the ball. Ruiz and Nicholas have a combined eight sacks this year. Bowdoin QB Tim Drakeley ’17 is back in starting lineup, but he hasn’t really played since Week 3, which will provide Ruiz and Nicholas a chance to capitalize and have one of their best games.
Tufts RT Justin Roberts ’16 and LT Akene Farmer-Michos ’16
I’m not sure about this, but I think Roberts and Farmer-Michos are the only offensive linemen we’ve ever featured as players to watch or X-factors, and now we’ve done it twice. Apologies to all the other great O-linemen out there around the league.
Roberts and Farmer-Michos are big reasons why RB Chance Brady ’17 is running his way towards history, and the Jumbos need to run well on Saturday to beat Middlebury. The Panthers have been very hit or miss against the run defensively, surrendering 301 yards on 59 carries (5.1 ypc) against Wesleyan, 190 yards on 49 (3.8 ypc) against Amherst and 204 yards on 61 carries (3.3 ypc) at Bates, while also allowing just 33 yards on 31 carries (1.1 ypc) against the vaunted Trinity attack. Inside LB Tim Patricia ’16 will have to make a lot of stops this weekend, and per usual he is leading Middlebury in tackles. If he can’t, Roberts and Farmer-Michos will be opening up some wide lanes for Brady to bounce through.
Maybe you’ve never heard of Elo Ratings. I hadn’t until very recently. But recently a little NbN fairy whispered sweet nothings in my ear, and now we have Elo Ratings. If you want the history of what Elo Ratings are, read here. If you want to know about the mainstream sports applications that inspired this fairy to do some great statistical work on NESCAC football, check out FiveThirtyEight.com. If you are averse to clinking on links that may take you to strange places, I’ll give you the rundown here.
Elo Ratings are a system that quantify the gains and losses to each team after each contest. Wins produce gains in ratings, and losses produce reductions in ratings. In our system (again, I can’t take any personal credit for this work), margins of victory compared to expected winning margin also effect the changes in Elo Ratings. At the end of each season, team ratings are regressed towards the mean, which makes sense because in college athletics there is often a lot of turnover between seasons, so teams have to prove it both on the field and in the Elo Ratings.
Our timeline currently stretches back to 2005. In our ratings, all teams begin with an “average” rating of 1500, meaning that at the beginning of our timeline, teams were very closely clustered together. I’ll spare you the math – because I don’t want my brain to start hurting – but trust me when I say that there is a way to convert each team’s Elo Rating into their probability of winning their next game, and by comparing two teams’ win probabilities and putting them into some kind of magical/mathematical cauldron, you can conjure up a spread for every game. It’s also important to note that home teams are allotted a four-point advantage throughout the spreads.
Below is a graph that depicts each team’s Elo Rating from the beginning of the 2005 season through Week 7 of the 2015 season. This should give you some idea of how each team’s stock has risen and fallen over the past decade.
What’s the point of showing you this? Well, if you’re a stat nerd, the value is obvious. This is pretty cool. Secondly, though, this week we are sharing the spreads for each game in our predictions and discuss the spread a little bit. In the information you will see which team is giving points this week.
Bates (2-5) (-10) at Hamilton (1-6), Clinton, NY, 12:00 PM
Despite the ugly records, both of these teams are on the upswing. Bates is coming off of two straight wins and a CBB title, the program’s third in the past four years, making the 2016 class the first since 1900 to claim three outright CBB titles in its tenure. A win will also make the 2016 class 16-16, which would tie last year’s class as the winningest since 1983. Finally, Hamilton is the only program which Bates holds the series advantage over, with the Bobcats currently in the lead 19-18.
Hamilton, meanwhile, has returned to relevance this year. Not only did the Conts get their first win in over three years at Williams, but they’ve been very competitive, losing to Tufts by three in double OT, Wesleyan by five, Bowdoin by 10, Colby by five and Middlebury by five. With a lot of young players making impacts, specifically on defense and at QB Cole Freeman, there is a lot of hope for this program next year.
As for this year, though, the focus for both teams is finishing on a high note and giving its seniors a great last memory. When analyzing a Bates game, the first thing to ask for its opponent is whether they can stop the run. In Hamilton’s case, they’ve done a pretty good job of that this season. Tufts, Wesleyan and Trinity put up big rushing totals, but they also ran the ball around 50 times against Hamilton, and on the season the Continentals are allowing 3.28 yards per rush. Not exactly 1980’s Steelers, but passable, and I actually think that practicing against Hamilton’s new Wildcat read option will actually have prepared the Continentals to stop the Bates attack. If Hamilton can force QB Pat Dugan ’16 to the air, it will be a long day for Bates. No one besides Bats WR Mark Riley ’16 scares you in the passing game.
The Bobcats, meanwhile, need to step up their pass defense. Hamilton, as a team, has the highest yards per completion average. They don’t necessarily complete that many passes, though. Freeman and Chase Rosenberg ’17 have combined for a 43.9 percent completion rate. DB Brandon Williams ’17 will be on alert and trying to add to his league-best five interceptions.
The Continentals won a big game two weeks ago, and are still feeling good about themselves after taking Middlebury to the wire. They’ll be good enough to cover the spread, but the final decision goes to Bates.
Prediction: Bates 24 – Hamilton 21
Amherst (7-0) (-22.5) at Williams (2-5), Williamstown, MA, 12:00 PM
If you take a peek at the Elo Rating chart above, you might notice that Amherst is currently at the highest it’s ever been, and Williams is at the lowest. The spread of (-22.5) is actually lower than last year’s (-24), but it definitely feels like more of a lopsided matchup this year. That’s what I meant when I said it would take the upset of the millennium for the championship hunt to be impacted this weekend. Williams would have to cover a 22.5 point spread and beat Amherst in order to give Trinity a shot at sharing the title.
On paper, this game is clearly a blowout. The Jeffs have played some competitive games, but none have really ended up that close besides the 16-7 win over Trinity a week ago. The next closest margin was a nine-point win over Wesleyan in Week 5 in which Amherst needed a five-plus minute drive late in the fourth to clinch the win. The only question for Amherst is which QB Reece Foy ’18 will show up? The efficient, dual-threat Foy, or the clumsy turnover-prone Foy? He’s had five picks the last three games after having one pick in the first four. All he has to do is get the ball near his awesome receivers, including WR Jackson McGonagle ’16, who is a big play threat when Foy is able to hit him downfield, and rely on the bruising rushing attack lead by Kenny Adinkra ’16. As an entire team, Amherst is averaging 4.7 yards per rush. Enough said.
If Williams has one thing going for them, it’s experience. Five starters on offense and five on defense are all seniors, so they won’t shy away from the daunting task ahead of them. DE James Howe ’16 has had massive expectations heaped on him the past couple of seasons, but teams have been able to neutralize him much of the time by scheming for him, but he’s been productive this season with two sacks, and has opened the door for fellow D-lineman Jack Ryan ’16 to get 3.5 sacks of his own.
Despite Williams’ significant series lead (71-53-5), Amherst is expected to win its fifth straight contest against their rivals and clinch not only the NESCAC title, but also its 32nd Little Three title, which we’ve barely even talked about because it’s seemed like a formality for awhile now. And yes, I think they cover that massive spread.
Prediction: Amherst 35 – Williams 7
Colby (1-6) (-0.5) at Bowdoin (1-6), Brunswick, ME, 12:30 PM
This game is basically a pick ’em, and that’s all I can do, because I don’t know what to think about either team. For the most part, it’s been a lot of meaningless second halfs for these teams this season. Bowdoin has no running game right now, and Colby is afraid to throw the ball and might have a QB battle in camp next season.
The Mules’ rushing attack has been solid after a slow start though, thanks to RB Jabari Hurdle-Price ’17 and the heavy lifting of FB Robert Murray ’16. They just can’t do anything through the air. QB Gabe Harrington ’17 has one touchdown and 11 interceptions, and Christian Sparacio ’18 has gotten time in spurts, but he’s completed less than half of his attempts and is more like a Wildcat QB with the ability to throw right now. Defensively, LB Stephen O’Grady ’16 has been a workhorse, leading the team in tackles.
It’s going to be a challenge for Tim Drakeley to be effective in the passing game for Bowdoin with no rushing threat. He’ll be looking to find WR Dan Barone ’16 early and often, and there will be a lot of pressure on All-NESCAC C Matt Netto ’16 and his squad to keep Drakeley upright. On the defense, it will have to be a big day for LB Branden Morin ’16 and companion LB Phillipe Archambault ’19, who’s stepped right in and tallied 49 tackles in six games.
It’s going to be low-scoring, with neither team able to move the ball quickly. With that being the case, I have to tip the scales in favor of Colby, who will be able to move the ball on the ground and get after the passer on third and longs. It’s going to be a sad Senior Day in Brunswick.
Prediction: Colby 23 – Bowdoin 17
Middlebury (5-2) (-6) at Tufts (5-2), Medford, MA, 12:30 PM
When was the last time this game was relevant? Probably 2008, when the Panthers beat Tufts 38-24 to finish 5-3, ahead of the 4-4 Jumbos. Tufts hasn’t beaten Middlebury since Nov. 10, 2001. That’s 5,116 days. However, for the first time in a long time, Tufts and Middlebury come into the game with the same record, and in all honesty, I’m not sure Middlebury deserves to be favored in this game.
We’ve talked a lot about the injuries to the Panthers, and that is a big reason why they’ve played some close games recently and I’m feeling like Tufts can pull this off. Early in the week, though, Head Coach Bob Ritter was hopeful that some of his offensive linemen would be healthy by Saturday, which was probably directed at C James Wang ’16, though Ritter didn’t say for sure. Wang’s been dealing with a lingering leg injury all season, which is pretty much par for the Panthers’ course.
I still think the Middlebury passing attack will be productive. In the finale of two brilliant careers for QB Matt Milano ’16 and WR Matt Minno ’16, don’t be surprised to see those two connect early and often. Very often. Minno is chasing history, needing two touchdowns to become the all-time TD reception leader in Middlebury history and 40 yards to reach second in receiving yards for a career. Those two milestones are pretty much a lock. Elsewhere, TE-turned-slot receiver Trevor Miletich ’16 should have a big game, too. When he’s been healthy this season he’s been a favorite target for Milano.
I’ve already discussed the need for Tufts to run the football, but will they be able to move the pigskin through the air? If so, they’ll need to attack the corner opposite boundary CB Nate Leedy ’17. PSA to NESCAC teams: Don’t throw at this kid. Leedy picked off two balls a week ago, and if every team challenged him like Hamilton did he’d have two picks per game. He is also probably the hardest hitter on the Panther defense. Sometimes his shoulder-first launches result in missed tackles because he doesn’t wrap up, but it actually happens less than you’d think. When he connects, the ball carrier goes down. Hard. So, if Tufts QB Alex Snyder ’17 is smart, he’ll try the other side of the field, putting pressure on CB Andrew McGrath ’18 if he’s healthy, but more likely CB Matt Daniel ’19. Safety Dan Pierce ’16 will be a huge factor in plugging up the run, as well.
Maybe it’s just too hard to pick against my team in the last game of my classmates’ careers, or maybe I’m jaded because I’ve watched the Panthers trash Tufts for the last three seasons, but in either case, I’m taking Middlebury even though they’re (-6). There are a lot of Midd haters out there right now because they’ve played some close games against teams that they “should” have blown out. But they’ve still won those games. And that kind of resiliency and winning attitude will play the difference in this one-touchdown game.