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Panther football wraps up record-breaking season

MIDDLEBURY — When the Middlebury College football team pulled away in the fourth quarter from visiting Tufts on Saturday to win, 35-13, the Panthers had put the finishing touches on the team’s best season since 2007.
Middlebury this fall equaled the 2007 season’s 7-1 record, even if a result elsewhere on Saturday meant the Panthers had to settle for second place, unlike the program’s 2007 co-championship: Just before the Panthers finished off the Jumbos, Trinity (8-0) won vs. Wesleyan in overtime to take the 2012 NESCAC title.
Coach Bob Ritter was, of course, disappointed to hear immediately after the Tufts win that Wesleyan lost a late lead vs. Trinity, costing the Panthers a share of the title.
But Ritter said he had little to complain about in 2012, when the Panthers — notably junior quarterback McCallum Foote and senior receiver Zach Driscoll — rewrote many program records and defeated tough league rivals Amherst and Williams, while losing only at Trinity.
“It was a great year. I’m not going to focus on the one loss we had because there were so many good things about the year and the way they guys played and they things they did,” Ritter said. “I’m just very excited about it.”
Driscoll finished the Tufts game with 10 catches for 124 yards and two touchdowns. He ended the season setting NESCAC records for receptions (83) and touchdown catches (15). He ended his career as Middlebury’s all-time leader in receptions (172), yards (2,257) and touchdowns (29).
Meanwhile, Foote set a new NESCAC single-season record with 2,897 passing yards, surpassing former Panther QB Donald McKillop’s 2,873 yards in 2009. He had already set a NESCAC single-season mark earlier this season with 31 touchdown passes.
Ritter said one reason the Panthers took a step forward from 2011’s 4-4 record was the return of Foote, Driscoll and senior tight end Billy Chapman — who caught 10 passes for 105 yards vs. Tufts and finished the season with 61 catches and eight TDs.
“We got better offensively, with Chapman and Driscoll and Foote all being back again,” he said. “They were just firing on all cylinders.”
Just as importantly, the defense improved under second-year coordinator Doug Mandigo. Ritter said freshman linebacker Tim Patricia made an immediate impact; second-year starting corners Dan Kenerson, a senior, and Joel Blockowicz, a sophomore, both took steps forward; senior John Wiet joined Patricia in solidifying the linebacking corps; and senior Jim Tillson helped anchor the defensive line.
In the third and fourth games of the season, the Panthers held Amherst and Williams to three and 13 points, respectively, and only three teams scored more than 21 points vs. Middlebury this fall.
“The step our defense took was a giant step,” Ritter said. “Whereas last year we felt like we had to score 50 to win, we didn’t feel that way this year.”
Winless Tufts did challenge the Panther defense on Saturday, however, totaling 404 yards and 21 first downs. Back Justin Weaver rushed 20 times for 107 yards, and QB John Dodds completed 23 of 41 attempts for 246 yards.
“They did a good job of keeping us off balance,” Ritter said.
Tufts drove 61 yards on seven plays to take a 7-0 lead on its opening possession. Receiver Mike Howell sparked the drive with a 29-yard run on a reverse, and Dodds hit Dylan Haas from 10 yards out for the TD.
The Jumbos drove into Panther territory on their next possession, but Blockowicz came up big on a third-down play, wrestling the ball away from a Tufts receiver and returning the interception 13 yards to the Middlebury 33.
The Panthers then marched to tie the game, with Foote hitting Driscoll from 14 yards out to cap the march; Driscoll ran a nice double-move route to get open.
Neither team scored on their next few possessions, although the Panthers reached the Tufts 7 before falling short on fourth down. But just before the half the Panthers moved 79 yards in nine plays to take a 14-7 lead. After Foote flipped a shovel pass to Matt Rea that went for 19 yards to the Jumbo 38, three more completions moved the ball to the one, and from there Foote found Driscoll in the right flat for the score.
Middlebury made it 21-7 on its second possession of the third quarter. A Foote scramble on fourth-and-2 kept the drive alive at the Tufts 9, and from there Foote threaded the ball to senior Josh Amster in the back of the end zone.
Tufts responded with a drive to make it 21-13. A 35-yard bomb to Nick Kenyon on third down keyed the march, which was capped with Marcel Pitre’s two-yard run at 5:28 of the third.
The Panthers drove, but stalled at the Jumbo 7, and the Jumbos blocked Jake Feury’s 24-yard field goal attempt. Two possessions later, the Jumbos took over on their own 1 with 12:32 left in the game, and began to move. Dodds completed seven passes, and Weaver ran for a first down at the Panther 23.
Then something happened that observers said they had never seen at a Middlebury game. Weaver pounded the line and was surrounded by the Panthers. The ball popped loose behind the line right to Wiet, and he and safety Jared Onouye raced down the left sideline, with one Jumbo steadily gaining on Wiet.
Just as the Jumbo began to bring Wiet down, he lateraled to Onouye on the Tufts 25, and he romped into the end zone at 8:22 for the vital score.
Ritter was asked his thoughts when he saw the lateral coming.
“I was thinking don’t do it, let our offense get on the field. But it was fun to see and have them make the play,” Ritter said. “For us, I haven’t seen one of those ever. That was a huge swing right there.”
The Panthers sealed the game on their next drive, a 12-play, 86-yard drive ending in 43-yard TD pass from Foote to Chapman.
Foote finished 36 for 53 for 389 yards. Running backs Remi Ashkar (18 carries, 90 yards) and Rea (10 carries, 41 yards) each caught five balls. Patricia finished with 10 tackles, and Blockowicz added eight tackles as the Panthers held off the stubborn Jumbos.
“They played hard and played well and kept us off balance,” Ritter said. “It was a gritty game, and we had to play all four quarters to win it. But I thought our guys responded well and did the things we had to do.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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