MIDDLETOWN, CT -- Despite a slow start for the red-hot Eph offense and a strong start for the Cardinals, Williams football (6-1) hit their stride in the second half and cruised to a 34-7 victory at Wesleyan’s homecoming game in Middletown. The win marks the fifth in a row for the Ephs and with Trinity’s 23-12 loss to Amherst today, Williams now stands alone in second place in the standings with an opportunity to spoil sole ownership of the NESCAC championship for the undefeated Lord Jeffs. The Cardinals fall to 3-4 and sixth place.
“I give a lot of credit to the way Wesleyan came out against us today,” said Eph head coach Mike Whalen. “They played us hard in the first half…controlling the field position game and working the ball into our territory a few times. If it wasn’t for a few bounces going our way, it could have very easily been 10-0 Wesleyan in the first quarter.”
The Cardinals found themselves with an early chance for a score as an almost entirely pass-exclusive drive orchestrated by sophomore quarterback Blake DuBois set them up 1st-and-10 on the Williams 14-yard line. However, three consecutive failed pass-plays forced a field goal try from 31 yards out, and senior defensive back Matt Zanedis made an outstanding athletic effort to block the kick in what would prove to be the first of many big plays to come for the veteran playmaker.
The Ephs were unable to capitalize however, as the offense seemed to be playing tight, dropping passes and not executing as smoothly as they had in their previous four victories (during which they amassed 140 points on over 1700 yards). Whalen felt that the team was perhaps allowing the pressure of the game’s significance—a shot at the Little Three title and the league championship—to get to them, and humbly admitted that he was as much to blame for that as anybody.
“I kept telling them all week in practice how big a game this was for us,” reflected Whalen, “and how the Amherst game would be meaningless if we didn’t go out and take care of business against Wesleyan. I think maybe some of the guys were playing tight and trying to do too much because of that….
“After we fumbled it in our own territory, the guys came to the sideline and probably expected me to holler at them, but I just gathered them around and told everybody to take a deep breath. Wesleyan is going to score I told them and we just have to get back to basics when we get the ball again.”
Ironically, the Cardinals were not able to put any points on the board following the turnover, as a dropped pass in the end zone and a missed field goal from a 29 yard distance kept it a scoreless contest. It looked as if the squads might go into the locker rooms knotted at nil, until Zanedis came up huge again for the Ephs with a 40-yard interception return, giving Williams a 7-0 lead with six minutes left in the half.
The pick-six reenergized the NESCAC’s leading offense, who started with the ball on Wesleyan’s side of the field for their next drive. A 21-yard hook up from junior quarterback Pat Moffitt to sophomore receiver J.C. Stickney on the first play of the series got them to the red zone, and a 14-yard pitch-and-catch from Moffitt to junior running back Ryan Lupo on 3rd-and-long made it 1st-and-goal with a couple minutes remaining in the half. After a holding penalty knocked them back to the 19-yard line, timely receptions by junior wide-out Bryce Bennett (one from sophomore QB Matt Coyne and the other from Moffitt) got the Ephs to within a yard of the goal line. Lupo barreled into the end zone to reward a gutsy 4th-down attempt and make it a two-touchdown game at the end of the half.
“You can’t say enough about the play of Matt Zanedis, coming through with that blocked field goal and the interception return,” praised Whalen. “That play really ignited us and it was exactly what we needed at that moment in the game to get us going. The 4th-down score was also so critical for our confidence and I think it gave us some momentum that we rode all the way through the second half.”
The Ephs did not hesitate to put that momentum to good use, as Lupo broke free and sprinted for a gain of 31 on the very first play from scrimmage in the third quarter. Moffitt followed that up with a 15-yard strike to Bennett, and Coyne took care of the remaining 13 yards himself, running it in from 2-yards out for the touchdown.
“Lupo had a tough first half,” admitted Whalen, “but he kept grinding out there and it was a very good thing for our offense when we got him going. After that I felt like the field really opened up for us and it made some big gains downfield possible.”
The Cardinals would respond to the Ephs’ third score with their own touchdown drive on their second series of the half. Although he was sacked twice, DuBois completed 7 of his 10 tries through the air including a 23-yarder to sophomore David Brunelli on 3rd-and-13 and an 8-yard touchdown throw on 4th down, also to Brunelli, dropping the deficit back to 14 at the end of the quarter.
Williams did not waste any time in responding however, as Moffitt revisited Stickney and Bennett for gains of 28 and 18 respectively to push the ball past midfield. From there it was Lupo again who dashed through the Cardinal defense for another big gain, this time for 23 yards and his second touchdown of the day. The league-leading rusher finished with 114 yards and 3 touchdowns on 20 carries. Moffitt went 13 for 20 for 211 yards and no picks, while Bennett and Stickney combined for 144 yards on 10 catches.
After DuBois was sacked two more times on the following Wesleyan series, Lupo put the game out of reach with his third touchdown run to make it a 34-7 ballgame with four minutes to go. The 62-yard drive was aided massively by sophomore B.J. Griffin's 30-yard reception.
Besides the defensive heroics of Zanedis, freshman Chris Cameron continued his stellar perfmormance this season with a team-leading 10 tackles and 1.5 sacks. Sophomore Dan Canina matched that sack total, and sophomore Colin Curzi and junior Tim Kiley contributed a sack each as well. Sophomore defensive back Dan O’Mara tallied 8 tackles in another solid performance.
“It wasn’t a picture perfect win and we definitely need to work on some things for next week, but all we wanted to do was give ourselves the opportunity to play for the championship and we did that,” remarked Whalen. “Defensively it was a great team effort by both the guys on the line and the guys in the backfield, so hopefully we can take that into the game next weekend.”
It will all be on the line this coming Saturday at Weston Field, when the Ephs battle the nemesis Lord Jeffs of Amherst in Williams' annual homecoming event. Hundreds of parents, alumni, and supporters are expected to be in attendance of a game that will decide the Little Three title and the NESCAC championship. The league’s biggest game of the year will kickoff in Williamstown at 12 noon.