Ephs claim perfection and NESCAC title with 31-16 victory over Amherst
AMHERST, MA -- Redemption rarely strikes as satisfactory a note as it did this afternoon for the Williams College Ephs football program. Last year, it was the Lord Jeffs of Amherst who strode into Williamstown on homecoming weekend in the season's final game and walked away with their first outright title ever in a heart-breaking loss for the Ephs and their supporters. But in 2010, Williams found themselves with the opportunity to reciprocate the gesture, and they did so in resounding fashion by defeating their archrivals 31-16 at today's Amherst homecoming game to claim sole ownership of the 2010 NESCAC championship. A surge of offense in the second half, along with 3 interceptions by the Eph backfield and a heroic effort from the offensive line in the final thirty minutes, were the decisive factors in this ballgame.
The triumphant win has earned the program its third outright conference crown since 2000, as well as its seventh perfect season in school history. Additionally, Aaron Kelton, who was hired by the athletic department this past May, becomes the first Williams head coach to lead his team to an 8-0-0 mark in his debut campaign.
"I'm ecstatic for the guys on our team," said Kelton as he boarded a bus that resonated with the celebratory cheers of his squad. "For them to be able to have this experience, especially the seniors...it's a great feeling knowing that we were able to share this as a team."
When asked if this victory was made more special by the fact that the returning players were able to avenge last year's loss to Amherst, Kelton was as humble and as diplomatic as always with his response.
"It's all about getting the win, that's what it comes down to for us," he stated. "I'm proud of the hard work our players put in this season to put us in this kind of situation for this kind of win. They certainly made all the necessary strides and did all the things that they had to do to get to this point. ...Achieveing the goal we set for ourselves at the start of the year is what makes it special in the end."
Every bit of preparation and perspiration proved to be essential for the Ephmen this Saturday, as they found themselves in another tightly-contested, highly-physical battle with their longtime foes. The defending champs would test the mettle of the Williams defense immediately, marching the ball to the Eph 10-yard line on the opening possession of the game. A 35-yard throw from Jeff senior quarterback Alex Vetras to classmate Andre Gary helped move the chains to that spot. The Jeffs were unable to break the plane however, and the Ephs held their ground to force a field goal attempt. Junior kicker Matt Rawson booted it through the uprights to give Amherst the early 3-0 edge.
The Eph offense has normally been quick to score and even quicker to answer scoring drives of opponents this year, but Amherst was not allowing them to gain traction with the ground game in the opening two series, leading to punts in each case. The Eph defense was giving Vetras and the Jeff unit trouble as well, and on the third Jeff drive of the first quarter, he had a deep attempt picked off by senior Chris Rudnicki at about midfield.
This interception seemed to create the spark that the Williams offense needed, as Moffitt connected with conference-leading receiver Darren Hartwell for 25 yards on the initial play of the subsequent drive. The gain was soon nullified though, for after the Ephs went backwards on 1st and 2nd down for losses of 3 and 12 yards respectively, Moffitt heaved up a toss on 3rd-and-25 that landed in the grasp of Amherst sophomore Landrus Lewis. It was the only time the New Jersey native had thrown a pick in the first quarter all year.
Thanks to another stellar 3-and-out series by the Williams defense, Moffitt would soon have another crack at the endzone, as he took at the Amherst 27-yard line to start the Ephs' fourth drive. The short field was cut in half by senior runningback Ryan Lupo, who carried for 8 and 5-yard gains to begin the series. From there, Moffitt found junior receiver J.C. Stickney in open space for a 15-yard touchdown and a 6-3 lead. Junior kicker Chris Cleary tacked on another point to make it a 7-3 score late in the opening frame.
Amherst would begin their next drive from their own 33-yard line, only to have forward progress stymied once again by an Eph interception. This time it was junior Dan O'Mara who stepped in front of a long Vetras try and returned the ball 21 yards down to the Williams 44-yard line. The Jeff quarterback who threw all of 2 picks in the previous seven games of 2010 had now doubled that total in a span of less than fourteen minutes.
"The fact that we were able to put pressure on the quarterback was very important to our success," recognized Kelton. "Our gameplan was to crowd the pocket on him [Vetras] and force him to rush a few throws. We did just that, and our defensive backs were able to position themselves well and come up with some big plays for us."
The Hartwell-Moffitt tandem would follow the second interception with a second deep strike, hooking up for 37 yards to bring the Ephs into the redzone at the close of the first quarter. A 17-yard completion to Stickney two plays later moved the marker to the 4-yard line, but a false start call on 3rd-and-goal from the 1 disrupted what looked as if it was going to be another Williams touchdown. After an incomplete pass, Cleary drove home the 23-yard field goal to expand the lead to 10-3.
The Eph defense overwhelmed the Amherst attack yet again on the next series, forcing another 3-and-out. A solid punt from Rawson backed Williams up to their own 21-yard line, but the deep field position appeared to motivate the purple and gold that much more. The offense uncorked their most impressive drive of the game, soldiering ahead for 77 yards on 7 plays to the Amherst 5-yard line. On 4th-and-2 from that spot, Kelton decided to run a play instead of kick the field goal, and Lupo lost the handle on the carry.
Suddenly, it was the Jeffs who had the momentum, as Vetras and senior back Femi Oyalowo led an inspired 7-minute, 97-yard touchdown charge that ended with a 19-yard tuck-and-run by Vetras and a 1-yard endzone dive by junior runningback Eric Bunker. Amherst had tied the game in the final minute of the half with a most unexpected flurry of first downs.
Seeking to reverse the tide in the closing seconds, Moffitt forced the issue downfield and had a long throw by Jeff junior Kevin Heller. The Ephs, who nearly took a 17-3 lead into the halftime, now entered the locker room tied at 10 with Amherst.
"I sat the guys down at halftime and just told them that now it's a 0-0 game," recalled Kelton. "That's how you have to look at it. We knew it was going to be a tough fight when we took the field with Amherst, but this is what you have to overcome if you want to call yourselves champions."
Indeed, the championship spirit truly surfaced for the Ephs in the second half as the offense opened the third quarter looking confident both through the air and on the ground. From inside the Williams 20, Moffitt found junior Tomas Kearney for 11 yards, then delivered a 37-yarder to Stickney on the next play to run the chains past midfield. The offensive line began to find its footing at this juncture and open up holes for Lupo, who recovered from his fumble to gash his way to the Amherst 4-yard line. Tight end and senior tri-captain Jon Carroll would come up with the big touchdown reception on 3rd-and-goal, putting the Ephs up 17-10.
As it turned out, neither team would create anything on offense for the remainder of the quarter. Vetras had yet another pass intercepted on the first Jeff play from scrimmage in the half. Eph junior Tyler Cole was the responsible party in this instance, but Williams could not capitalize on the turnover on the following possession. The Eph defense stood tall to cause a turnover-on- downs in the next series, but once again, the offense could not cash in.
Finally, at the top of the fourth quarter, the vitality of the Williams offense reemerged to produce their most successful drive of the match. After a 19-yard sprint by Lupo and a 21-yard snag by Kearney advanced the ball well into Amherst territory, Moffitt targeted his go-to man Hartwell for a 33-yard touchdown to shoot Williams ahead 24-10 with 13 minutes left in regulation.
Amherst soon reminded Williams that it was no time for premature celebration, answering this score with a quick scoring drive of their own. Vetras scrambled for 21 yards to take the ball inside the 20, and he hit junior receiver Will Reed in the endzone from that distance to put the Jeffs back within a possession 24-16. The quarterback set team highs for both rushing (33) and passing (226) yards in the final game of his career. Rawson could not convert the extra-point though and it remained an 8 point defecit.
The Jeffs mustered a huge 4th-and-1 stop on the subsequent Eph possession, a conversion that if successful might have ended the game right there. The Eph defense continued its clutch performance, responding with a big 4th-down hold that put the ball right back into Moffitt's hands with 5 minutes left to play. The offensive line made one last heroic push on that drive, clearing the way for a 12-yard scamper by Moffitt, and 10 and 11-yard gainers by Lupo. Stickney would come down with the solidifying touchdown to stretch the lead to 31-16, a 26-yard grab that made it a two-possession game with 3 minutes and 26 seconds on the clock.
"Pat Moffitt settled us down and got everyone involved early in the second half," noted Kelton. "Our offensive line really hunkered down as well and allowed us to establish the run and open up some things in the passing game. The receiving core has been outstanding all year, and once the ground game got going, Pat was able to throw it up to guys like Hartwell and Stickney and they came up with big plays for us once again."
Senior Dan Canina set the tone of that final Amherst series with a sack for a loss of 2 yards, and junior defensive back Ben Oliva dashed any hopes of a Jeff comeback with shutdown pass coverage on 3rd and 4th-down. On the game's final series, Lupo drained Amherst of its timeouts and Moffitt took three knees to bring home the title for Williams. Eph fans mobbed Pratt Field in a scene quite similar to the one witnessed at Weston Field last season. This time however, it was the purple cows who wore the happy faces.
"This was a great team effort, and a great individual effort by everyone involved," concluded Kelton. "From the coaching staff to the players to the fans…all year it we have functioned as a cohesive program and it was a strong collective effort that got it done for us today, in all aspects of the game."
Kelton and the returning players will have their work cutout for them next season, as the Ephs will lose 14 seniors, several of whom were key contributors to the team's massive success in 2010. Pat Moffitt will graduate this June having taken virtually every snap for Williams in his senior year. He finishes the 2010 season and his career with 2437 passing yards, an average of 304.6 per game. Ryan Lupo, who led the NESCAC in rushing his junior year, closed out this season at a clip of 96.6 per game, including 128 yards on 33 carries in his final game as an Eph.
Tri-captains Jon Carroll and Bryce Bennett will leave the receiving core having put up strong numbers during their time in the program. Bennett only played two games before suffering a season-ending injury this year, but he average 93.5 yards of receiving in those contests. Tight end Carroll was second on the team in touchdown catches with 5, in addition to nabbing 256 receiving yards and handling a multitude of blocking assignments. Right guard Kevin Rose started every game for Williams in his last season, and was a source of protection and power in the trenches game after game.
On the defensive line, the Ephs will bid farewell to Dan Canina and Tim Kiely. In 2010, Canina registered 5.5 tackles behind the line of scrimmage for a total loss of 9 yards, while Kiely posted 2 for 16. Each senior earned 2 sacks in his final year. Pat Barren and Chris Rudnicki anchored an outstandingly stout defensive backfield this season. They were 2nd and 4th on the team in tackles with 61 and 34 respectively. Barren added a sack, an interception, and 8 break-ups to his career totals this year, while Rudnicki came up with a big pick in the championship game.
Aaron Kelton becomes the first Eph coach to debut at 8-0-0 and has guided the Ephs to their seventh perfect season in 125 years of football. All of the perfect seasons have come since 1989:
Perfect Seasons (7)
Dick Farley (5): 1989, 1990, 1994, 1998 & 2001
Mike Whalen (1): 2006
Aaron Kelton (1): 2010
Coach Kelton is also the first Eph head coach since Dick Farley (1987) to debut with a win over Amherst. Only Farley, Bob Odell (1971) and Kelton have accomplished this since 1948.