After slow start, Panther football ousts Colby, 37-6

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury College football team used a strong defensive effort to overcome an sluggish start on offense and roll past visiting Colby on Saturday, 37-6, scoring the game’s final 34 points after falling behind early in the second quarter.
The 3-0 Panthers didn’t take the lead for good vs. the 3-0 Mules until quarterback Jared Lebowitz scrambled and hit Conrado Banky for a 5-yard score at 8:19 of the second period.
But by that point Colby had only two first downs, and only led because the only time the Mules had moved the ball is after they recovered a Lebowitz fumble at the Panther 34 and scored three plays later.
The Panthers, however, made it two straight Lebowitz-to-Banky scores at 3:03 of the second, this one an 18-yarder, and it was 17-6 at the half as the offense came to life after the slow start. Ultimately, the Panthers racked up 559 yards of total offense, 418 through the air, while holding Colby to 179.
Coach Bob Ritter credited the Panther defense, which racked up eight tackles for lost yardage, including five sacks of two Colby QBs. Matthew Daniel blocked a Colby field goal, Robert Wood blocked an extra point, Alex Norton recorded three sacks, and Bobby Ritter and Wesley Becton led with six tackles apiece. The Panthers held Colby to 67 yards on the ground, and starting Mule QB Jack O’Brien completed 14 of 29 passes for just 91 yards.
 “We were really sputtering on offense, and it was because our defense played so well that we were able to find our rhythm,” Ritter said. “They really dominated and came up with big plays. We put them in a bad situation a couple times and they didn’t get down. They did a great job.”
   PANTHER JUNIOR CONRADO Banky is unable to hang onto a one-handed catch in the end zone against Colby Saturday. Banky did make nine catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns in Middlebury’s 37-6 win.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
To be fair, Colby played well defensively early by changing formations just before snaps and working hard to take away the Panthers’ preferred short-passing game by pressing the receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Lebowitz, who finished 28 of 52 for 389 yards, completed just one of his first seven attempts, and several of his long passes went off receivers’ fingertips in the first half.
Regardless, all the Panthers’ first six possessions netted were one Carter Massengill field goal and a 3-0 lead at 7:53 of the first period; three punts, one blocked that resulted in a Panther defensive stand as the first quarter closed; the fumble as Lebowitz was sacked that Colby converted into a 21-yard catch-and-run TD pass from O’Brien to tailback Jake Schwern at 3:04 of the first; and a missed field goal.
“They gave us a couple different looks and threw off our rhythm a little bit. We’re a rhythm offense, and when you don’t make some of those early throws it takes a little bit to get going. It was just one of those games that happens once in a while where it takes you a while to get into a rhythm,” Ritter said.
With the help of receiver Maxwell Rye’s 8-yard run on a fake punt on fourth-and-two at the Colby 49 on Middlebury’s first possession of the second quarter, the Panther offense finally started clicking. On the next play Lebowitz hit tight end Jimmy Connell for 29 yards. A screen pass to Will Jernigan moved the ball to the five, and from there Lebowitz stepped up to avoid the rush and dumped the ball to Banky streaking across the middle, and at 10-6 the Panthers had the lead for good.
On the Panthers’ next possession they moved 66 yards in nine plays, capped by an 18-yard bullet to Banky, who was mysteriously left wide open by the Mules in a seam route down the right hash marks, and it was 17-6 with 3:03 to go in the quarter and at the half.
On that drive the Panthers finally got some traction in their running game, which had been futile to that point: Peter Scibilia ripped off runs of 5 and 10 yards. A freshman filling in for injured starter Diego Meritus, Scibilia finished with 57 yards on 16 attempts.
“We found a little rhythm in the run game, and then hit some plays we needed to hit,” Ritter said.
Colby reached the Panther 18 to open the second half, but senior safety Kevin Hopsicker broke up an O’Brien pass in the end zone to end any real suspense. 
Colby picked off Lebowitz in Mule territory on the Panther’s first possession of the half, but they moved 80 yards to make it 24-6 at 1:07 of the third in their next opportunity. Lebowitz moved the chains by hitting Banky (nine catches for 136 yards) twice, found Connell for 17 yards, and capped the drive with an 18-yard toss to South Burlington’s Tanner Contois, who held on despite getting drilled in the end zone.
The Panthers added fourth-quarter scores on a 62-yard punt return by speedster Jimmy Martinez and a 25-yard run by freshman Charlie Ferguson (eight carries, 59 yards), who finished a drive in which junior quarterback Jack Meservey completed both passing attempts.
The Panthers stand in a three-way tie for first place in NESCAC with Amherst and Trinity, with Tufts and Williams just behind at 2-1. They travel to face Amherst this coming Saturday, and will host Williams on Oct. 14.
Ritter, like any football coach, just wants his team to take it one game at a time.
“We talk about 1-0. I don’t want them thinking about any more than Amherst next week,” Ritter said. “That’s got to be our focus, because you’ve got to play. You saw today, you think you’re going into an 0-2 team, but if we’re not firing on all cylinders and playing well anybody can beat us.”
But he likes his team’s chances.
“I think we’ve got some great defensive players that can really dominate a team, and we’ve got a really good offensive line, quarterback and receiving crew,” Ritter said. “So I think we match up with everybody. It’s just a matter of coming ready to play.”

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