Football: Walsh named NESCAC and D-III POW as Amherst wins

A 15-yard facemask penalty against Amherst on the ensuing kickoff enabled Bowdoin to start its next drive at midfield. Five plays later, the Polar Bears were finally able to find the end zone in the second half off of a 1-yard burst by Matt Boyd, cutting the deficit to 28-14. Trailing by two touchdowns with 5:18 to play, Bowdoin attempted an onside kick. Amherst recovered and the Jeffs had an opportunity to run down the clock and seal the win. But the Bowdoin D came up big, holding their guests to a three-and-out and allowing the Polar Bear offense to reclaim possession of the ball at its own 22-yard line.

For the remainder of regulation, Polar Bear quarterback Ricky Leclerc controlled the tempo of the game. The Bowdoin signal-caller threw 12 passes on the drive -completing seven-including one on fourth-and-eight, and accounted for all but six of the 78 yards it took Bowdoin to reach the Amherst end zone. Fittingly, the Polar Bear touchdown was scored on a one-yard quarterback sneak.

Now, with only 54 seconds to play, Bowdoin again tried an onside kick, but the Polar Bears could not afford to fail to recover this one. Unfortunately for Amherst, injuries forced Coach Mills to readjust his usual “hands-team,” and when the onsides kick came, no Jeff made an aggressive play for the bouncing football, and the Polar Bears recovered.

Leclerc continued right where he left off, as he promptly marched his team 50 yards downfield, culminating with a game-tying five-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Nolin to send the game, improbably, to overtime.

Having just erased a 21-point deficit against a stout defense in less than six minutes, momentum was, as it has rarely been the last couple of years, with the Polar Bears. This momentum continued into the overtime period as Bowdoin won the toss, elected to go on defense first, and ended Amherst’s first possession by picking off a Moseley offering in the end zone. Now the weight of the game fell squarely on the shoulders on a beleaguered Amherst defense. Mills’ unit, which entered the game without the services of three starters, and had been banged up during the course of play, was now just 25 yards from its own end zone and had to prevent the red-hot Bowdoin offense from scoring any points. This was gut-check time for Amherst, and the boys in purple and white more than delivered.

The Jeff defense forced two incompletions and snuffed one run to shut down the potent Bowdoin offense. But even after that impressive effort, Bowdoin still had a chance to make a 39-yard field goal to win the game. That kick attempt was foiled-though it may well have missed in any event-by big L.J. Spinnato ’06 who tipped the ball at the line and gave new life to Amherst.

The Polar Bears, who started the second overtime period on offense, appeared to have broken the 28-28 deadlock when Leclerc completed a six-yard pass to Brian Durant in the middle of the end zone, but the touchdown was called back due to offensive holding. On the very next play, cornerback Rob Walsh ’05 tallied his fourth interception of the game to return Amherst to the driver’s seat.

At this point in the game, quad-captain Fletcher Ladd ’05E showed why he could well be the very best player in the NESCAC. Having already eclipsed the College’s all-time career rushing mark previously held by Josh Mason ’97 and his own previous record for the longest run from scrimmage all in one play earlier in the game, Ladd now put his team on his shoulders. Ladd carried the ball three consecutive times for gains of 11, five and nine yards, respectively, willing his way past would-be tacklers each time. At the end of his final run, Ladd found himself in the end zone, and Amherst found itself with an exhilarating 34-28 double overtime win.

“It was a gut-check game, and our kids really stepped up,” said Mills. “But we were happy to get on the bus and get out of Dodge with a W.”

But while Mills ought to be proud of the toughness his team displayed in regaining its composure on the road in overtime, there are clearly a few things that need fixing, especially on defense. Leclerc torched Amherst for 395 yards passing on 32 completions, and, if not for a couple of big defensive plays by Walsh and company in the red zone, Amherst easily could have been routed by Bowdoin.

On any other day, Rob Walsh’s incredible four-interception performance, for which he was named NESCAC Defensive Player of the Week and NCAA Division III Defensive Football Player of the Week by Don Hansen’s National Weekly Football Gazette, would be the individual story of the game, but this day belonged to Fletcher Ladd. With his 95-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, Ladd surpassed Josh Mason’s ’97’s previous career rushing record at Amherst of 2,916 and further solidified his place as one of the greatest backs in Amherst’s outstanding football history. In overtime, Ladd showed why he could well be the most valuable player in the NESCAC, but Ladd certainly is not a “me-first” player. “I’d rather not dwell on the record or the run too much, because the most important thing is that we won, and that the team held strong through some serious adversity,” said Ladd. “The offensive line is really coming together, they’re tough guys and they play hard, and they deserve as much credit as I do when you think about career yardage.” Ladd finished the game with 175 yards rushing, and now has an astounding career total of 2,984.

Bowdoin scored the game’s first touchdown early in the first quarter following a blocked Marsh Moseley punt. The Jeffs responded with 21 unanswered points in the second quarter, with touchdown runs by Ladd and Matt Monteith ’05 and a touchdown reception by tight end Parnell Adam ’06.

Next week, the undefeated Jeffs travel to Vermont to take on the 1-1 Panthers of Middlebury College.