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Monday, Dec 5, 2022

Football Comes Through In Fine Fashion for Homecoming

Author: Neil Onsdorff Staff Writer

For those of you who were unable to catch this past weekend's game, there is only one thing to say — unfortunate (although your cardiologist might be pleased). Hard-hitting, heart-stopping, with the Panthers the ultimate victor — all one might want for a harvest homecoming at Youngman Field. There is nothing that could be written here that would do justice to the emotional ups and downs, the intense play of both teams and the climactic finish. This game was its own "Tale of Two Cities" — with the Panthers offense in control for much of the first half and then almost unrecognizable in the second. Dave Nikiel '04 could not have been more correct when he declared, "Offense sells tickets; defense seals the deal."

In the first half, the Panthers' offense was able to strike fast and, most importantly, first. Mike Hacker '02, Middlebury's lethal weapon on defense, (who finished the contest with one sack, two fumble recoveries, and a huge interception) made his presence felt on the first Trinity drive of the game by being the bottom man on the pile and coming up with the first turnover of the game. The offense was able to feed off such a delicious treat and ate up the remaining yards into the end zone.

Another positive for the Panthers happened on their next drive. The seemingly unstoppable duo of Scott Roberts '02 and Denver Smith '03 was again in full force. They hooked up for two long passes for a combined 55 yards. With that, Smith moved himself into a position to become the Middlebury's all-time receiving yardage leader for a single season (701). With two games left in the season, Smith has a tremendous opportunity to shatter almost any receiving record he wants. Yet the Panthers were unable to capitalize on these aerial bombs because of the all-too-frequent red zone turnover problem that has been driving Coach Ritter and his staff irate all year.

The Middlebury defense, which played out of their minds all day, came up with another huge first half play of their own. Hacker once again recovered a loose ball after a Trinity punt returner made one of the more bonehead plays in recent memory, letting the punt hit his hands but obviously forgetting the crucial idea of covering the ball. Coach Ritter, sensing blood, called for a deep play through the air, and Roberts was able to deliver a perfect ball to wide receiver Mike Murray '05 who was stopped just inches short of the goal line. The Panthers were able to pound the ball in for the score behind the strong running of tailback back Matt Wolf '04 on the next play.

The sense around the field was that a blowout was in the offering — yet this was as close as the Panthers would get to the goal line for the rest of the game. Trinity was able to strike for a 36-yard pass play to cut the score by seven, and the teams entered the locker room sensing that the second half was going to be brutal.

During one of the strangest halftimes ever, the Panthers were forced to send fullback Chris Davis '03, one of the backbones of their offensive, to the hospital for x-rays. (Porter Hospital must have thought Halloween had come early!) With Davis' return in doubt, Middlebury's offense was forced into battle without one of its hardest-hitting generals — and it showed. In an early possession of the second half, Roberts went back to throw and had his clock absolutely cleaned. The ball went flying out of his hands and was recovered by Trinity at Middlebury's own 10.

The Middlebury defense was thus called to make their second goal line stand in as many possessions and answered to perfection! With huge plays and hard hitting, the Panthers forced Trinity to a long field goal that they missed, and the score remained 14-7, in favor of the Panthers.

Yet with the Middlebury offense moving almost backwards, Trinity was able to move to the Middlebury 11 yard-line on the next drive. But, with the epitome of a bend-but-do-not-break defense, the Panthers were able to stop Trinity and regain some control of the game.

With both Roberts and Davis returning to the line-up, the offense looked to regroup and put together a drive — if not to score, at least giving the defense time to regain consciousness. Unfortunately, on the first play of the drive, Trinity intercepted the ball on the Middlebury 30-yard line and was again poised to tie the game. The drive was stopped by another fantastic play by Mike Hacker, this time a sack, and the Panthers offense was given another shot at moving the ball.

As was the case most of the day, Middlebury had no answers on offense, and Trinity's offense stepped on the field at their own 23-yard line. After some well-designed plays and some luck, Trinity was looking at a first and goal from the two-yard line. Fans were asking themselves not if Trinity scores, but when they score, would they go for the two-point conversion?

But not a single soul on Middlebury's defense was letting that defeatist thought cross his mind. On the first play, Trinity's quarterback play faked, rolled out and threw the ball between the numbers of Middlebury's defensive end Tim Collard '04 for a score-saving interception—what a huge play! Trinity was able to muster one more drive, but it was shut down by a defense that was clearly playing with a lot of heart, a tremendous amount of talent and a bit of luck.

For most of the day Trinity's offense controlled the ball, running 116 plays, 80 of which were passes, to Middlebury's mere 69. But the coaching staff and players have to be pleased that they were able to get their first win at home this season, especially during a great homecoming weekend. An exhausted linebacker, Andrew Engdahl '04, talking about how it felt to win such a tight game, said, " 'Cheer, boys, Cheer' never sounded so sweet, never felt so good to sing." Middlebury will be home again next weekend to face Hamilton. Kick-off is at an early 12:30 p.m.