Jeffs and Ephs battle on gridiron

This year, Amherst already has as many losses as it had in the last two years combined. But with the Jeffs set to continue their storied rivalry with archrival Williams College (7-0) tomorrow at Pratt Field, no definitive characterization of Amherst’s 2002 season is yet warranted. Any season that includes a victory over Williams is a successful one, especially considering that an Amherst win tomorrow would end the Ephs’ perfect season and avenge last year’s 23-20 overtime loss.

Amherst finished last season 7-1 and was within a hair of their first undefeated season since 1984. The 2001 squad was a senior-laden team, and Mills has been forced to feature several talented but unproven players in 2002. “This season was uncertain from the start in that we were replacing so many quality graduating seniors on both sides of the ball, but particularly on defense,” said co-captain fullback Jeff Ryan ’03.

This year’s schedule was made more difficult by the fact that Amherst’s opponents became more challenging each week. Amherst did not play a team with a winning record until the fifth week of the season. Despite their inexperience, Amherst got off to a 4-0 start to begin the season. The Jeffs looked formidable in racking up wins against Bates, Bowdoin, Middlebury and Colby Colleges. Only Middlebury seemed to genuinely threaten Mills’ squad, but the Jeffs escaped with a 17-10 victory. The season took a turn for the worst two weeks later when Amherst traveled to Connecticut to take on Little III rival Wesleyan University.

Amherst ended up losing the game 14-13, the school’s first loss to Wesleyan since 1993, despite significantly outplaying their hosts. Led by senior free safety Jeremy Carroll’s three interceptions, the Jeffs forced five Cardinal turnovers and took a 13-7 lead heading into the half. Amherst’s offense was unable to get into the end zone as Carroll accounted for Amherst’s only touchdown of the day. A blocked punt late in the third quarter allowed Wesleyan to produce the game-winning score.

Amherst actually had two chances to retake the lead late in the game but were foiled both times. With a little over a minute to play, quarterback Marsh Moseley ’05 was stuffed on a quarterback sneak on a fourth-and-inches on Wesleyan’s 20-yard-line. Amherst got the ball back and drove all the way back to the Wesleyan 32-yard-line but sophomore kicker David Bodner’s 49-yard field goal attempt was blocked as time expired.

Amherst’s season seemed to be heading into a tailspin as they found themselves trailing Tufts University 24-10 heading into the fourth quarter only one week after their Wesleyan loss. The Jeffs staged a miraculous comeback, tying the game at 24 at the end of regulation and winning the Family Weekend game outright in overtime.

Sophomore Jason Wagstaff’s 40-yard punt return in the fourth quarter revitalized the struggling Jeff offense. Tailback Fletcher Ladd ’04 ran 15 yards for a touchdown on the next play and Amherst found itself down only 24-16. With eight seconds to play in the game, Moseley threw a three yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Jim Devine ’04, giving Amherst the opportunity to tie the game with a two-point conversion.

After a Tufts penalty, Ladd rumbled in from a yard out for the two points, sending the game into overtime. After electing to defend first, the Jeffs stopped Tufts on a three-and-out, and the Jumbos missed their field goal. On its rebuttal, the Amherst offense picked up a first down, and Bodner kicked the game-winning field goal, giving Amherst a 27-24 victory.

Last week, Amherst traveled to Trinity College to take on a tough Bantam team. Unfortunately for Amherst, the Jeffs didn’t show up to play in the first half and found themselves trailing 21-0. The Jeffs responded well in the second half and made a game of it, but came up short, 21-14.

Amherst’s offensive star this year has been Ladd, who has gained 1092 yards rushing thus far. He is 128 yards shy of the Amherst single-season rushing record set by Josh Mason ’96 and 201 yards from the NESCAC record. Ladd has been aided by an experienced offensive line anchored by senior tackles Rob Vernicek and Brendan Carolan and guard Shane Morrow ’04. The most explosive player on the offense is wide receiver J.P. Zito ’03, who has four touchdowns and averages nearly 16 yards per catch. On defense, Amherst boasts the top secondary in the league, allowing an average of only 114.6 passing yards per game. Carroll is tied for the NESCAC lead with seven picks. Linebacker David Borgonzi ’05 leads the team in tackles with 61, and defensive tackle B.J. Gaddour ’05 tops the team in sacks. A special team standout, Bodner is tied for the single-season NESCAC record for field goals in a season with seven.

Despite all of Amherst’s talent, the task of defeating Williams is daunting. The Ephs are the best team in the NESCAC, having assured themselves at least a share of this year’s NESCAC title, and are riding a 15-game winning streak dating back to their 2000 loss to the Jeffs. Williams is powered by their solid offense, led by last year’s NESCAC Offensive Player of the Year, quarterback Joe Reardon. “We need to turn them over,” said Mills. “That is what we need to do to win. We need to force them into mistakes to slow them down on offense.”

Amherst and Williams fans alike will be treated to a passionately played game of football. “It’s going to be a battle,” said co-captain defensive tackle Pat Hayes ’03. “But, I cannot think of a better way to end my football career.”