Williams falls 26-21 to Amherst in gritty championship battle

Williams falls 26-21 to Amherst in gritty championship battle

Box Score

Photo Gallery

 WILLIAMSTOWN, MA - The Williams College Ephs needed a championship performance this afternoon if they were going to take partial ownership of the NESCAC title away from the undefeated Lord Jeffs of Amherst, but the purple and gold came just a few yards short of the upset as the archrivals took home the league crown and the Little Three title with a 26-21 victory at Weston Field.  An anxious crowd of Eph and Jeff supporters alike held their collective breath on the game's deciding play, a 4th-and-3 pass in the flat from Eph junior quarterback Pat Moffitt to junior tight end Jon Carroll that was stopped less than a yard short of conversion.  Amherst ran the last few seconds off the clock, then stormed the field with fans to celebrate their 3rd undefeated season in program history, as well as their first NESCAC title since 2000 and their first Little Three since 2004.

The stat line read relatively close, which was to be expected of the matchup between these two top-flight foes.  First downs went to Williams, 18 to 14.  Total yards went to Amherst, 368 to 335.  Possession time was split almost evenly at 31:48-28:12 for Williams.  They even tied for fumbles lost at 1 each.  The determination and the effort was there on both sidelines, but as Eph head coach Mike Whalen recognized after the game, the difference was that Amherst made more big plays to claim the huge road victory.

"I took note of about fifteen to twenty plays during the course of the game that if they went another way probably would have changed the outcome," commented Whalen.  "Our effort was tremendous and we had opportunities...but you can't be pretty good against a team like Amherst, you have to be very good.  They're an extremely well-coached and talented group and I give them a lot of credit for coming into our place and performing like they did....

"Obviously, the bar is set very high for our program.  [Hall of Famer] Coach Farley set it there...and we try and reach it every year.  When we don't win the NESCAC and the Little Three it's always disappointing...but I'm proud of the effort our men put forth today and I'm proud of the leadership the seniors displayed on the field this afternoon and all year long."

During regulation, the atmosphere was consistently intense, as a healthy crowd turned out for both schools.  Amherst got things going right from the kickoff with junior quarterback Alex Vetras and senior running back Aaron Rauh leading the charge in the air and on the ground respectively for three consecutive first downs.  But timely tackles in the backfield by Eph defensive backs Dan O'Mara ('12) and Matt Zanedis ('10), and defensive lineman Ben Halbower ('12) forced a long 3rd-and-14 for the Jeffs who had to settle for a field goal and an early 3-0 lead.

Williams responded with even more offensive intensity on their opening series, as first year starter Ryan Lupo, who stood atop the NESCAC as the leading rusher for almost the entire season, rumbled into Amherst territory with both carries and catches.  Moffitt took control from there, finding dynamic sophomore wide receiver Bryce Bennett for 14 yards and B.J. Griffin, also a sophomore, two plays later for a 24-yard over-the-shoulder touchdown grab to give the Ephs a 7-3 advantage in the first quarter.

After a three-and-out for the Jeffs, it looked like Moffitt and the Ephs were heading down the field for another score, as he delivered strikes to Bennet and Griffin again, this time for 18 and 20 yards respectively to move the chains out to Amherst's 34-yard line.  But a third deep attempt by Moffitt was read well by Jeff junior defender Nick Edwards, who intercepted it in the red zone.

The ensuing drive went nowhere once again for Amherst, thanks to the concentrated efforts of an Eph defense that forced another three-and-out, and caused problems for a Jeff offense that had a single-game high of 23 points this season.  Two more solid carries by Lupo, and some fancy footwork by Moffitt brought Williams within striking distance for a third straight drive.  The Williams crowd reeled with startled gasps when quarterback Matt Coyne fumbled the ball and nearly rendered another strong series useless with a turnover; but the sophomore stayed with it and recovered possession for the Ephs.  Moffitt showed his appreciation for his compliment's composure with a 28-yard touchdown toss to Bennett to launch the Ephs out to an 11-point lead.

"I'm almost disappointed we jumped out to an early lead," said Whalen.  "It seemed liked they did the same thing to us last year and we came back to win....  The team that goes down early in this rivalry always hangs around and strikes when it counts, and we knew they weren't going away easily in this one...and of course they did eventually strike again...we just didn't respond as well as they did."

The first of said "responses" came at 10:14 in the second quarter, when Vetras hooked up with sophomore Andrew Reed for a 70-yard touchdown on the second play of the drive to shrink the lead to 14-10.  Another score came just four minutes later when a punt snap on a 4th-and-long was botched by the Ephs and recovered by Jeff junior defensive back Nick Edwards, who ran it back 30-yards for another quick six in Amherst's favor.  The 17-14 edge held steady into halftime.

As in the first half, Williams came out firing in the third quarter, as both Lupo and Griffin added to their yardage totals with big gains and Williams marched into the red zone once more.  But a misfire in the trenches left Lupo with nowhere to go but into a wall of Amherst tacklers, and the Ephs were stopped again inside the Jeff 20-yard line.  Williams returned the favor by forcing a 3rd Jeff three-and-out on the subsequent series, although they couldn't turn out the same result on the next drive.  Vetras struck big again, this time a 39-yard pass to sophomore Kevin Heller, who followed that up with another reception on 3rd down to move the chains inside the Eph red zone.  The cows were able to stop the bleeding right there though, and the Jeffs could only tack on a field goal, stretching the lead to 20-14.

Sophomore kicker Matt Rawson was not as fortunate on his next kick, a try from 39 yards out that sailed wide left at the tail end of the third quarter.  The final fifteen minutes were plagued by turnovers, the majority going against Williams, starting with a pick by senior defensive back Chris Govey at midfield on another long throw by Moffitt.  Vetras wasted no time in the following series, and on 3rd-and-15 he heaved up another lofty toss, this one landing in the arms of junior Andre Gary for a 54-yard completion to make it 1st-and-goal Jeffs.  Fellow junior wide receiver Brian Murphy took care of the rest on the next play to open up a 26-14 advantage with 13:41 on the clock.

In urgent need of a counter-score, the purple and gold brought a stunned Williams audience right back into the game with a clutch drive, capped off by an easy 4-yard touchdown run for Moffitt.  The Eph crowd was roaring once again as their team had fought their way back to within five.  After both sides failed to put anything together on back-to-back drives, Williams finally caused a turnover, and it couldn't have come at a better time.  With 3:44 left in regulation, Dan Johnson dove on the loose ball at the Amherst 43-yard line.

With the championship and the season on the line, the offense entrusted their league-leading running back Lupo to keep the comeback alive.  The gutsy first-year starter battled fatigue and a messy field to bring the spot to the Amherst 23-yard line.  The season-deciding 4th-and-3 play elicited timeouts by both coaching staffs, and a jittery stadium stood on edge waiting for the snap of the ball.  When the ball was hiked, tight end Carroll received the short pass, but he could not get around the tackle of the Jeff cornerback.  The game ended 26-21, and Amherst celebrated a perfect season on the muddy gridiron.

"There was no quitting by any one of our guys today and that's what I'm most proud of," said an emotional Whalen.  "Games like these never come down to one play or player...it is a collective loss, a disappointing loss especially for our seniors who have been such great leaders all year.  We'll need a lot of guys to step up next season, as they did this year...but we have a solid core of players coming back so I think we're going to be fine down the road."

In many regards, the 2009 season proved to be one the most dominant campaigns in the history of the program, a complete team performance that surely made hall-of-famer Dick Farley proud.  If it weren't for a few unfortunate bounces at critical moments, it might have been a different story for this gutsy crew, but as it stands, the purple cows will have to dust off and try to do it again next season, a season that promises to be another strong one for Williams.

-- Daniel Pesquera, Staff Assistant and Contributor