Jeffs ready to bounce back vs. Ephs

After starting the year off with an impressive 5-0 record, the Lord Jeffs have struggled recently. Two weeks ago, Amherst dropped a 10-3 heartbreaker to Tufts University on Family Weekend, and last week NESCAC powerhouse Trinity College defeated the Jeffs, 31-7.

Entering the season finale against archrival Williams College in “The Biggest Little Game in America,” Amherst cannot make up enough ground in the standings to have any chance of finishing the year as NESCAC Champions. However, if the Jeffs can extend their home-winning streak over the Ephs to three, they will secure their first outright Little Three title since 2000.

“I think our guys have played hard and prepared hard all season,” said Head Coach E.J. Mills. “Obviously, we haven’t accomplished all of our goals, but we are playing for a championship this week and we feel pretty good about that.”

Offensively, the story of the season thus far has once again been the phenomenal effort put forth by quad-captain tailback Fletcher Ladd ’05E. After seven games, Ladd leads the NESCAC in rushing, having already accumulated 958 yards on the ground. The senior stalwart became the College’s all-time leading rusher earlier in the season and will look to pad his impressive resume with a big game against the Ephs.

Veteran signal-caller Marsh Moseley ’05 directs the passing attack, which has been slumping recently. The Jeffs have managed to collect only 130 yards in the air over the course of their current two-game losing streak. Notwithstanding recent struggles, the Jeffs’ aerial attack is not to be overlooked.

While Moseley was forced to sit out last year’s game against Williams due to injury, the Ephs must surely remember that number four picked apart their secondary the last time they visited Pratt Field back in 2002. Moseley threw for a career-best 237 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-35 shootout victory. While Moseley’s chief target that day, J.P. Zito ’03, has long since graduated, the Jeffs still have more than enough threats to concern the Williams D. Quad-captain Jay Wagstaff ’05 and tight end Ryan Sykes ’05 have been Moseley’s most dependable receivers this season.

Over the years, Amherst has been known primarily for its stingy defense, and this year’s defensive unit has certainly continued in this fine tradition. The Jeffs are holding their opposition to an average of just 16.4 points and 261.1 yards per game. Linebackers Justin Roemer ’06 and Mike Salvatore ’05 are among the conference leaders in tackles, and cornerback Rob Walsh ’05 is tied for the lead in interceptions with six.

Amherst opened its season with a 44-7 rout over Hamilton College. Hamilton has the most porous defense in the NESCAC, and it certainly showed in Amherst’s home opener. The Jeffs amassed 592 yards of total offense, including 389 on the ground, as Fletcher Ladd and company had a field day with the Continental D. The Amherst defense, however, was spectacular, holding the Hamilton offense to just 77 total yards.

The Jeffs got their first scare of the season the following week when they traveled to Bowdoin College. Bowdoin, which entered the game having lost 13 consecutive contests, scored 21 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to tie the game up at 28 and force overtime. Amherst was unable to produce any points during its first overtime possession, as Moseley was intercepted in the end zone. At this point, the Polar Bears had all the momentum on their side and seemed poised to secure their first win since 2002. But the Jeff defense held its ground and forced the Polar Bears to attempt a long field goal. This attempt was blocked, and Amherst was given new life. Senior defensive back Rob Walsh picked off his fourth pass of the afternoon to end Bowdoin’s next drive, and Ladd carried the ball three consecutive times on Amherst’s next possession to score the game-winning touchdown.

After escaping Bowdoin with a win, the Jeffs pulled out another close one in week three against Middlebury College. Amherst’s 28-26 come-from-behind victory was achieved in large measure as a result of another spectacular performance turned in by Ladd. Ladd rushed for a career-high 284 yards and two touchdowns-including the game winner-as the Jeffs improved to 3-0.

Amherst wrapped up the first half of its season with a 19-10 win over Colby College. The Amherst offense had difficulty moving the ball against the White Mules, but these troubles were overcome by playmaking ability of Jay Wagstaff. Wagstaff scored on a 54-yard flea-flicker in the first half and on a 65-yard punt return in the second to give Coach Mills’ defense all the cushion that it would need.

The Jeffs had perhaps their best game of the season in a 38-3 thrashing of Little III rival Wesleyan University in week five. Marsh Moseley completed 11 of 14 passes for 172 yards and three touchdowns as the Jeffs jumped out to a 31-0 halftime lead over the Cardinals in a game that was televised regionally by NESN. Thanks to their solid work early in the game, Moseley, Ladd and Wagstaff were all able to watch the entire second half from the sidelines. Unfortunately, Amherst has not tasted victory since this Oct. 23 triumph.

On paper, the 5-0 Jeffs may well have looked to be solid favorites over the 1-4 Tufts University Jumbos. But Coach Mills and his players were well aware that Tufts was much better than its record-the Jumbos had beaten the Jeffs in 2003-and that this Family Weekend showdown would be no easy affair. Indeed, Tufts proved Mills right. Neither offense played well on this rainy afternoon, but the Jumbos were able to put together one touchdown drive that was enough to deliver a 10-3 victory. Amherst drove inside the Jumbo red zone on its two final possessions late in the fourth quarter, but turned the ball over on downs each time. It was the first game since the 2000 season in which the Jeffs were held without a touchdown.

Last week, Amherst had the unenviable task of traveling to Hartford to take on NESCAC powerhouse Trinity College. Trinity was in the midst of a 20-game winning streak, and had easily won its first six games of 2004. This contest with Amherst-the 100th meeting between the two schools-would hardly be any different. The Bantams scored the game’s first 21 points and withstood a valiant effort by Ladd en route to a 31-7 win. With the loss, Amherst fell to third place behind 7-0 Trinity and 6-1 Williams.

Amherst will close out its season with the much anticipated showdown versus Williams, a team that entered its 2004 campaign with a lot of question marks. First-year Head Coach Mike Whalen not only had to fill the shoes of the legendary Dick Farley, but also had to replace long-time standout players such as two-time NESCAC Offensive Player of the Year Joe Reardon and NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year Graham Goldwasser. By any measure, Whalen has done admirably in maintaining the excellence of the Williams football program. The Ephs are currently second in the NESCAC with a 6-1 record-the one loss coming in a 30-12 defeat against Trinity.

While the Williams offense is perhaps not as dynamic as it was in recent years with Joe Reardon at the helm, it is still effective. Sean Gleeson has improved steadily at the quarterback position, but Williams’ true weapon on offense is tailback Tim Crawley. Crawley is second behind Amherst’s Ladd in rushing yards per game and leads the conference in all-purpose yards per game.

But the strength of this Williams team is its defense. The Ephs ranks second in the NESCAC-behind Trinity of course-in total defense. The Williams D is led by linebacker Wes Connors and defensive tackle Michael Connor up front and cornerback Jon O’Hanlon in the secondary.

Perhaps Wagstaff predicted the game most accurately. “Records go out the window in the Amherst-Williams game, and it should be a great game,” said the First-Team All-NESCAC receiver. “Both teams understand what this game is all about. Like always, field position and establishing the run will be the key to success for both teams. The support from the Amherst community will be a great lift for our team.”

The game is scheduled for a noon start on Saturday at Pratt Field and will be televised live by NESN. Amherst dropped a close, 14-10 decision to Williams in Williamstown last year, but the Jeffs have won each of their last two home games against the Ephs