AMHERST, MA - In Williams' 999th football game, the Ephs (6-2) did something they'd done 608 times before on Saturday - they won. As one would expect from a school now sporting a 609-343-47 record (equating to a .632 winning percentage, good for 5th all-time among NCAA teams with at least 500 victories), the Ephs didn't out-talent or overpower an exceptionally strong Amherst football team (5-3) on Saturday; they didn't ride the play of any one individual, and they didn't crush the Jeffs with flawless execution. Plain and simple, they just found a way to win, this time on a 4th quarter drive to pull ahead 24-23.
With the victory on Amherst's Pratt Field, the Ephs secured their 46th outright Little Three title since 1910 (Amherst has 28 and Wesleyan has 12), Eph Coach Mike Whalen's fourth consecutive win over Amherst, Whalen's fourth consecutive Little Three title, his fifth straight season with a record of 6-2 or better, and a sweep of Amherst for the class of 2009 - the first class to accomplish this feat since the class of 2000 did it with a 10-7 win over Amherst on Pratt Field in the fall of 1999. With the win the Ephs also avoided what would've been their first 5-3 season since the 2000 season under College Football Hall of Fame coach Dick Farley.
As if this weren't enough history, Eph senior co-captain Brian Morrissey became Williams all-time leading rusher since 1973 when Division III play started. He needed 49 yards to pass Fred Storz '01 (2,644 yards), and finished the day with 86 tough yards on 27 carries against the best rush defense in the NESCAC (the Jeffs were allowing an average of just 56 yards rushing per game going into Saturday's contest).
As for the game itself, the sheer number of spectacular plays, clutch plays, and improbable plays was simultaneously staggering and in a way unfortunate, as the even more numerous blue-collar plays - the crashing 3 yard gains and the scrambling 5 yard passes - which, collectively, made all the difference in the world in a game decided by a single point, will most likely be overlooked by history.
The teams were evenly matched, and as all the best games do, the outcome was decided by pure force of will with a touch of chance. Said Whalen:
"The great thing about this win is that you can't just go out there and say ‘well it was Mo or it was Moffitt or it was the defense' - it was 75 guys believing that they could get it done and beating a very, very good football team. I hope people know that that's a great football team we beat today and it's a credit to the kids that they went out there on this field and came away with a victory."
The outcome was anything but foreseeable in the first quarter when the Jeffs seemingly walked all over the Ephs. The Jeffs marched down the field on their first possession before a nice breakup by Eph DB and senior Tim Batty on third and nine forced Amherst to settle for a 28-yard field goal and a 3-0 lead.
Williams, on the other hand, was barely able to move the ball in the first quarter. The Eph defense did their best to keep Williams in the game, but as the first quarter rolled to an end, the Jeffs were once again knocking on the Ephs' door and would indeed score just seconds into the second quarter on a 7-yard Eric NeSmith touchdown run.
"Offensively I thought maybe we were just a little intimidated or just didn't come out the way we wanted to," said Whalen, "and I just challenged them a little bit and we didn't yell or scream we just collectively came together and said ‘hey, we can do better than this'".
Do better they would, as in the latter half of the second quarter the Ephs would engineer a 10-play, 73-yard scoring drive that included a big 3rd down conversion from Moffitt to WR Todd Schnuck, a beautiful touch pass to Powell for a 27-yard gain down the sideline, and a 7-yard strike to Buck in the back of the end zone for the Ephs first score of the game. Moffitt finished the day 19 of 36 for 207 yards, two TD's and two interceptions while making a host of clutch plays:
"For a sophomore to come in to this environment and make that many plays is just amazing," said Whalen, and his thoughts were echoed by Williams offensive coordinator and QB's coach Bill Barale, who added, "I told him that at this point you're no longer a sophomore, you're a junior because you've had all that experience...he's got a lot of ability, he's a bright kid and he really understands the game. He takes coaching very well and he really just tries to get better and better every game and it showed as he matured a lot over the course of the season."
On the ensuing Amherst possession the Ephs would catch a big break as a sack of Amherst QB Alex Vetras would result in a fumble recovered on the Amherst 39-yard line by Eph DL and NESCAC leader in sacks Charlie Birns '09. The Jeff defense held however, and the drive ended with a missed field goal attempt from 41 yards by Eph kicker Scott Sobolewski.
With just 1:22 left in the half, the Jeffs seemed content to try to run out the clock, but Williams used two timeouts to get the ball back on a punt with about a minute to go. Despite a booming 50-yard punt by Jeff punter Matt Eberhart, Williams was able to matriculate into Amherst territory, and eventually Moffitt found the senior receiver Buck down the sideline for a 24-yard gain to the Amherst 26 where Buck stepped out of bounds with just four seconds remaining. Barely a minute after his previous attempt from 40-plus yards, Sobolewski found himself with another shot at it, this time from 43 yards. This time Sobo nailed it, and an elated Eph team escaped to the locker room tied 10-10.
The second half would hail no break from the action, as a steadily intensifying rain would add yet another dimension to the game. Big defensive plays on both sides would dominate the first seven minutes of the third quarter, as Birns would make a big tackle for the Ephs early on to force an Amherst punt only to see the Jeffs take the ball right back on a Moffitt interception to linebacker Mike Taylor, who returned it 21 yards to the Williams 44. Moffitt was hit by Amherst DL Edwin Urey on the play, and the ball fluttered right into the waiting hands of Taylor.
Despite the momentum swing brought about by the play, the Eph defense seemed to have stopped the Jeffs when back-to-back Vetras incompletions brought up 4th and 11 for the Jeffs on the Williams 34-yard line. On the punt however, Williams would be called for an offsides penalty, and the extra five yards convinced Amherst coach E.J. Mills to go for it on 4th and 6. It proved to be a wise decision, as Vetras hit lightning fast receiver Andre Gary perfectly in stride on a crossing pattern, and Gary took it to the end zone untouched for a 17-10 Amherst lead.
As they'd done all year though, the Ephmen picked themselves up off the mat, and once again it started with a big play by the defense, as with under three minutes to go in the quarter Eph DB Sean Milano snared a 3rd down pass from Vetras and returned it for what looked like a touchdown until a flag revealed a Williams penalty would bring the ball back to the Amherst 14-yard line. A few plays later the wunderkind Moffitt scrambled (for what seemed to be the hundredth time of the day) out of the pocket, avoided multiple tacklers and heaved a pass seemingly up-for-grabs into the end zone. Miraculously, the athletic Powell snaked his way through two defenders and hauled in the 13-yard pass for a touchdown and a tie-game at 17. Said Whalen:
"Amherst is gonna be able to pressure you even with only four and five man rushes and even against a good O-line because they just have good players, and so the pocket's going to break down, and he (Moffitt) had to be able to scramble around and make plays and he got that done today, and I just can't say enough about how impressive that is for a sophomore."
The play was short-lived, however, as the Eph kickoff was returned Amherst returner Femi Oyalowo for 75 yards to the Williams 15-yard line. DB Ikenna Iheoma made a nice play to track Oyalowo down and trip him up at the 15, but it was all for naught as a few plays later NeSmith bounced off multiple Eph tacklers for a six-yard score. As a silver lining though, Williams was able to block the PAT, and the miscue would prove costly to the Jeffs.
"As I was analyzing the game," said Whalen, "I kept noticing things like they had 3 good backs we had 3 good backs, they had a good O-line we had a good O-line, so to have it come down to an extra point is probably about where it should be."
The missed PAT, though, would only prove costly in light of the Eph response. As the fourth quarter began and the Eph drive continued, the rain picked up to its highest intensity of the game. Rather than dropped passes and fumbled snaps though, the Williams' faithful were treated to a 9 play, 76 yard drive consisting of jumping, sliding, and diving catches by Powell and Buck, and a four-yard scoring run by - fittingly - Brian Morrissey. By hitting the extra point the Ephs took a 24-23 lead, and the defense would hold the Jeffs the rest of the way thanks to a number of big plays by the Eph defense highlighted by a diving Iheoma interception on the Jeffs last drive to ensure the Eph victory.
"It's tough to put into words how much it meant to all us seniors," said Morrissey, "we talked about it before as a group and we all agreed that the first three [wins over Amherst] would be a wash if we didn't come out here and win this one."
As for the record, Morrissey was his usual humble self:
"It means a lot to me just because really, it's testament to all the guys I played with over the years. If you ask either of the Szawz twins (All-NESCAC offensive lineman John and Henry Szawloski) I think you'd see that the record meant more to them than it does to me probably; it had more to do with them than it did with me honestly."
The humble-nature of Williams' new rushing king was no surprise on a team marked by perseverance, teamwork, and senior leadership. For a group described by Eph co-captain Trevor Powers as "75 brothers," Saturday's game couldn't have been a more perfect end to the season.