Trailing 14-10 late in the game, the Panthers engineered a dominating 13-play, 86-yard drive, culminating in a five-yard Mike Keenan touchdown strike to wide receiver Mike Murray with just 1:12 left to play.
Two plays later, Marsh Moseley ’05 tossed his second interception of the game to dash any chance of a last-minute Jeff comeback.
But the real story of the afternoon was Amherst’s struggle on special teams. Despite a couple of electrifying returns by Jay Wagstaff ’05, the special teams unit proved a real liability as the Jeffs went 0-3 on field goal attempts and a had a punt blocked and returned for a touchdown.
Amherst notched the first score of the game as sophomore tailback Ngai Otieno plunged into the end zone from two yards out at the start of the second quarter. The 48-yard scoring drive was keyed by an 18-yard reception by Matt Monteith ’05 on a critical third down.
Although the Jeffs controlled play on both sides of the ball in the first half, they could not pull away from the Panthers. David Bodner ’05 missed on back-to-back field goal attempts in the second quarter, one from 45 yards out and another from a more manageable 27 yards. But despite leading by only a single score, the Jeffs looked to be in complete control of the game, as Middlebury was having difficulty moving the ball on offense in the first half.
The Panthers were able to find a way around their early offensive woes, however.
With just under three minutes to play in the half, Amherst prepared to punt the ball away and get its stellar defensive unit back on the field. But freshman Mark Hannon’s punt was blocked by Mike Murray, who exploited a breakdown in Hannon’s protection. Murray alertly scooped up the ball and scooted 36 yards into the end zone to knot the score at 7 just before the half, drastically changing the complexion of the ballgame.
“We had tons of opportunities in the first half to knock them out of the game, but we let them hang around,” said Head Coach E.J. Mills.
Middlebury built on its momentum at the start the second half. Mike Keenan hooked up with wideout Tom Cleever on consecutive plays to advance the ball from the Middlebury 37 to the Amherst 17-yard line. The Panthers converted the field goal try and, all of a sudden, the Jeffs found themselves behind for the first time all season.
Amherst seemed poised to respond to the Middlebury score after Wagstaff returned the ensuing kickoff 32 yards out near midfield. The Jeffs advanced as far as the Panther 4-yard line, but were unable to pierce the end zone. Bodner came on to try to convert the potential game-tying field goal from just 26 yards out, but he missed wide left for the third and final time of the afternoon.
Despite his struggles Saturday, Bodner is still one of the top kickers in the NESCAC. “We have all the confidence in the world in him and we’ll keep kicking field goals,” said Mills.
The Jeff offense showed its resiliency and took care of business on its own on the next possession following Bodner’s miss.
Moseley and Otieno led the Jeffs on an impressive 11-play, 65-yard touchdown drive to reclaim the lead. Starting at their own 35 yard line, Amherst seemed to be in some danger of going three-and-out as an incomplete pass and an Otieno run put the Jeffs in a difficult third-and-six situation.
On third down, Moseley threw a short pass to Otieno, who showed his nifty running skills by eluding a would-be tackler in order to gain just enough yards for the first down.
The Jeffs entered Panther territory two plays later on an 11-yard Moseley scramble and momentum once again seemed to be swinging the host’s way.
After a couple of Wagstaff receptions and some more nice Otieno runs, Amherst was able to work itself all the way down to the Middlebury goal line where Otieno was finally able to reclaim the lead for the Jeffs with a one-yard plunge.
The Jeff lead would be safe until Mike Keenan and the Panther offense took possession of the ball at their own 14-yard line with just under six minutes to play. Middlebury needed to score a touchdown on this drive if they were to avoid starting the year 0-3. Unfortunately for the home crowd, the Panthers proved worthy of the challenge.
Keenan was 6-7 for 61 yards on the final drive as he picked apart a Jeff secondary that was trying to cope with absence of quad-captain cornerback Paul Whiting ’04, who had to be replaced due to injury. Try as they might, the valiant Jeff defense simply could not withstand the Panthers’ onslaught at game’s end.
“They did exactly what they had to do to win the ballgame,” said Mills.
Middlebury held Amherst to just 256 yards of total offense and quad-captain Fletcher Ladd ’04 to just 68 yards rushing.
This weekend proved that nothing can be taken for granted in the NESCAC this year. Williams, in its home-opener, lost a stunning 10-7 decision to Bates College. The Bobcat win was their first in 16 chances against the Ephs. Wesleyan University fell to Colby College as well on Saturday, marking the first time since Oct. 8, 1988, that all three Little III teams lost on the same day.
Amherst will travel to Maine on Saturday to take on 2-1 Colby.