The football team’s first-ever Pride Game did not disappoint, as attendees at Pratt Field saw one of the most exciting games in the stadium’s history. The Mammoths hosted Middlebury in a battle of the last two undefeated teams in the NESCAC. Despite the heartbreaking 34-31 loss in double overtime, Amherst has a lot to be proud of with this game.
The game ended in a nailbiter, althought it was anything but close to start. The only way to start a comeback is by first digging yourself into a hole, and the Mammoths managed to do just that in the first 11 minutes of competition on Saturday. After winning the opening coin toss and taking the ball to start the game, Amherst’s first three drives ended in interception, punt and interception, respectively.
The inability to get the offense going early, led to three quick scores for Middlebury, setting the Mammoths up with a 21-0 deficit. The two interceptions by quarterback Ollie Eberth ’20 set up the Panthers’ offense at midfield or better on two drives, and despite a punt pinning Middlebury at their own 11-yard line, two runs amassing a combined 62 yards negated any field position advantages. In fact, each of Middlebury’s three early touchdown drives contained a play that gained at least 30 yards. For the rest of the game, Amherst’s defense would allow only one play longer than 17 yards: the 54-yard touchdown that would eventually send this game to overtime.
What happened during the 42 minutes between Middlebury’s third and fourth touchdowns was hard-nosed football from Amherst. After one more drive-ending punt, Eberth led a 10-play, 79-yard touchdown drive that included an impressive 31-yard completion to wideout James O’Regan ’20. A missed point after would make it 21-6 with lots of time on the clock.
While that first touchdown was Amherst’s only score of the half, the Mammoths continued to play with an admirable aggression until the half’s end. One such play came after Eberth missed a pass on third-and-5 at Middlebury’s 19-yard line to set up fourth down late in the second. Instead of settling for a field goal, Amherst was confident enough to turn to Eberth again and go for six points. While his pass fell incomplete, that win-at-all-costs mindset is the kind necessary to win tight football games like this one. A forced fumble recovery by the Mammoths defense nearly set the offense up for another quick opportunity, but Amherst’s third interception of the afternoon iced the game going into halftime.
After the Amherst defense forced a quick three-and-out to start the half, the offense answered with Eberth’s second touchdown pass of the day — this one to Luke Mallette ’20. Amherst’s aggression showed again when the offense trotted back out in lieu of the field goal unit. Eberth reconnected with Mallette to capitalize on the two-point conversion, making it 21-14 in favor of Middlebury.
Despite four costly big-gain plays, the Amherst defense deserves a lot of credit for keeping the Mammoths in this game. After going down 21-0, the Mammoths then forced four punts (three of those being three-and-outs) and a fumble recovery. Middlebury began to regain their composure following Amherst’s second touchdown. After driving the ball from their own 25 to the Amherst 11, the Mammoth defense finally got a stop to force a 28-yard field goal. The would-be chip shot for three points was quickly dashed as Flynn McGilvray ’22 rushed through to block the kick.
After another stalled drive on offense, the Amherst defense answered with a strip-sack on third-and-10 to set the Mammoths up on offense at the Middlebury 32-yard line. It only took five plays from there to set up a goal line rush by Brandon Huff ’22, which tied the game at 21.
Middlebury seemed to be sputtering. Their next play on offense started with an illegal formation penalty. Then, on first-and-15 at their own 20-yard line, Middlebury threw another interception, this time to Matt Durborow ’21. This set up a nine-play, 31-yard touchdown drive for Amherst, capped off with a 2-yard rushing score by Kellen Field ’21.
The Mammoths had scored 28 unanswered points to take their first lead of the afternoon, 28-21. However, this isn’t where the story ends. Both teams would have offensive drives stall out before Middlebury had a 54-yard passing score, meaning another big play had spoiled an otherwise special defensive effort. Despite the back-breaking score, this team didn’t come so far just to surrender this easily. With three minutes left to play, Middlebury had the ball at their own 12.
In just nine plays, the Panthers had flipped the field and held the ball at Amherst’s 10-yard line with just 33 seconds on the clock. After a called timeout by Amherst, John Ballard ’20 kept the Mammoths’ hopes of victory alive with a goal-line interception, forcing overtime.
The first overtime seemed to continue the themes of defensive dominance and offensive miscues seen by both teams during regulation, as both teams threw interceptions on their first attempts. Durborow notched his second pick of the day, while Eberth lobbed up his fourth turnover after attacking Middlebury’s endzone on third-and-10.
Amherst’s first points of overtime came after a stalled drive ended in a 31-yard field goal by Conor Kennelly ’22. Unfortunately, that field goal would be quickly trumped by a Middlebury touchdown, ending the game at 34-31.
The Mammoths, on paper, should not have been in this football game. Middlebury held a 469-367 advantage in total yards, forced four interceptions and jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter. Any one of those things would spell disaster for a team, let alone all three at once. That’s why we don’t play football on paper. Despite this being Amherst’s first loss of the season, it was arguably their most impressive game of the season as well. The statistics and analytics that allow us to interpret this game can only explain so much. The pre-game preparation and in-game adjustments can only go so far.
What can’t be taught are intangibles, like heart and a refusal to quit. Have those, and you’ll be able to stay in any game. While the road to a NESCAC title now involves a few extra moving parts, there’s a lot to hang your hat on with this loss.
The Mammoths host Bowdoin Saturday on at 1 p.m.