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Wednesday, Sep 28, 2022

Panthers Roll Bowdoin 27-5 in Season Opener

McCallum Foote ’14 threw for 362 yards and three touchdowns and the defense forced four turnovers and allowed just three  points as the Middlebury football team kicked off 2013 where it left off in 2012 with a 27-5 victory over a toothless Polar Bear team. The Panthers lacked the polish and the dominance they exhibited a season ago, hardly surprising given the substantial turnover the team sustained, having lost 13 starters — six on offense and seven on defense — from the 2012 team.

After Middlebury received the opening kickoff, Foote engineered a ruthlessly efficient first drive, completing five of six passes for 62 yards, targeting his tight end Billy Sadik-Khan ’14 three times — all completions — for 34 yards, including an eight-yard touchdown toss.

Sadik-Khan, a wide receiver who had struggled with preseason injuries throughout his career made the transition to tight end during the offseason.

“During the offseason we thought it might be worth looking at him at tight end, given what we ask tight ends to do, and it’s worked out great,” said head coach Bob Ritter. “He’s always had good abilities, good hands and he’s gotten stronger in the offseason so he can handle some of the blocking assignments that we have.”

While the offense sputtered after the first drive, Middlebury’s defensive unit made a number of crucial stops early to maintain the lead. After penalties derailed Bowdoin’s first offensive possession, the Polar Bears picked up a pair of first downs on their second possession before Middlebury linebacker Zach Faber ’14 crashed down off the edge on a third-and-three play to halt Polar Bears’ running back Trey Brown in his tracks, six yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Bowdoin recovered with a superb special teams play, downing the subsequent punt inside Middlebury’s two-yard line after a 49-yard boot from punter Andrew Murowchick.

Facing the prospect of moving the ball from the shadow of his team’s end zone, head coach Bob Ritter called a running play that was snuffed out by First-Team All-NESCAC linebacker Griffin Cardew resulting in a safety and the game’s first points for the Polar Bears.

Bowdoin then executed its most successful drive of the game, taking the free kick after the safety and marching 55 yards on 14 plays, including a crucial fourth-and-one conversion before stalling at the Middlebury five-yard line and settling for a field goal — the team’s only offensive score — to cut the Middlebury lead to two.

The Bowdoin threat seemed to reignite Foote and the Middlebury offense, which unveiled a new wrinkle in first-year running back Joey Zelkowitz ’17, who caught a pair of passes from Foote in a span of three plays, employing a series of cuts and jukes to weave his way through the Bowdoin defense. Two plays after catching a swing pass that he turned into a 12-yard gain, Zelkowitz slipped through the Bowdoin front four, setting up a well-timed screen pass from Foote, and waltzed, untouched into the end zone for his first career touchdown, increasing the Panthers’ lead to 14-5.

“We expect a lot from Joey,” Foote said. “He’s a little water bug, definitely a quick kid. He adds an element to our offense that we haven’t seen in years past.”

“He’s a really quick-twitch, very great straight-ahead speed, but also can make guys miss — he’s very hippy,” Ritter said. “We haven’t really had a back like that in a long time. When he gets in some space it’s going to be fun to watch.”

The Middlebury defense held Bowdoin to just 27 total yards over the next two series, but the offense failed to capitalize on two opportunities to put the game out of reach. Foote threw interceptions on consecutive possessions, the second on a screen pass to Zelkowitz, who tipped the ball into the air and into the waiting arms of Bowdoin linebacker Joe Cleary.

While the offense struggled, the Middlebury defense continued to make plays, taking the ball back less than two minutes later as outside linebacker Jake Clapp ’16 separated Bowdoin running back Brown from the ball and safety Matthew Benedict ’15, who later registered an interception and made seven tackles, fell on the fumble.

“Matt’s just always in the right place at the right time, which is why he makes so many [plays],” Ritter said.

The offense, however, failed to capitalize, gaining just two first downs before punting with just over three minutes remaining in the half.

Once again, the defense picked up the slack. On second-and-long after an incompletion, Bowdoin quarterback Mac Caputi targeted a receiver cutting into the middle of the field. Instead, Matt Crimmins ’14, who was sitting underneath the route, made an acrobatic interception, giving Foote and the offense the ball with 2:41 left in the first half and excellent field position.

Following three straight scoreless drives, Foote orchestrated the Panthers’ third touchdown of the game, hitting Zelkowitz for a 20-yard pick up. Then, after consecutive incompletions on first and second down, Foote hit Sadik-Khan for gains of 10 and 20 yards respectively, the latter a strike down the seam, which Sadik-Khan hauled in at the goal line for a touchdown, his second of the game.

“That’s a play we run, looking off the safety one way or the other,” Foote said. “Their middle linebacker ran with him and when we get that look I’m going to give him a shot at it and let him be a basketball player and go up and catch it.”

The Panthers went into the locker room leading 21-5 and seized control of the game for good early in the third quarter. Facing a similar situation that led to the first-half safety — backed up to their own three-yard line after a Bowdoin punt — Foote led the offense on a mammoth 17-play, 76-yard drive that didn’t produce any points, but ate over seven minutes of clock and flipped the field position battle. Ultimately the drive ended when the offense failed to convert a fourth-and-three from the Bowdoin 21-yard line, turning the ball over on downs. Though the drive did not result in points, its impact on the game was substantial.

“That was probably our best drive of the game,” Foote said. “We converted a bunch of fourth downs and took five or six minutes off the clock, so that was a great drive for us.”

While the offense missed a litany of opportunities, including three failed fourth down conversion attempts, the defense was on point to deliver the knockout blows, which came via two second-half turnovers. First, Faber knocked the ball free from Bowdoin running back Zach Donnarumma’s hands, leading to a Middlebury recovery. Then, with just under 10 minutes remaining, after a Matt Rea ’14 touchdown run from a yard out, Benedict stepped in front of a Romero pass, putting an emphatic final mark on the game.

“In the fourth quarter they were down big and I knew they would be taking shots down the field,” Benedict said. “When I went back into my drop I saw the quarterback throwing a go-ball and I got a made break on it and got my hands on it.”

Middlebury outgained Bowdoin 459 to 290 en route to their 27-5 victory. Defensively, reigning NESCAC Rookie of the Year Tim Patricia ’16 led the Panthers with eight tackles, including one-and-a-half tackles for a loss. The Panthers also received a significant contribution defensively from first-year defensive back Nate Leedy ’17, who accumulated five total tackles and a pass breakup in his first career game.

“The defense did a great job,” Ritter said. “Obviously whenever you can keep a team from scoring a touchdown and create four turnovers you’re making a big impact on the game.”

The Panthers host Colby in their home opener Saturday, Sept. 28. The Mules (1-0) are coming off a 31-8 thumping of Williams at home. Middlebury has won three of its past four meetings with Colby.