Pick Your Poison

by Justin Long

I’d hate to be in charge of developing an offensive game plan against Amherst. With the Class of 2010’s defense resembling the New York Yankees’ “Murderer’s Row” lineups of the 1920s, I wouldn’t know where to begin.

Based on the size of Amherst’s defensive backs, I’d probably focus on throwing the ball deep. Cornerback Fran Florio ’10 is listed on the roster as 5-foot-9, but head coach E.J. Mills says he’s 5-foot-8 on a good day. He has mismatch written all over him.

On second thought, Florio had three interceptions last year and already has two this season. Mills says he’s been the team’s most consistent performer on either side of the ball for the past two years, and defensive coordinator Luke Bussard says that Florio learns from mistakes better than anyone else does. (He was named the team’s Most Improved Player in 2008.)

Alright, so maybe I’d stay away from Florio. No problem—I’d just go after Fred Argir ’10. He weighs in at around 175 pounds and looks like he could be pushed around pretty easily. But Mills describes Argir as a headhunter who, pound-for-pound, might be one of the most physical kids in the NESCAC. And judging by his three interceptions, seven pass breakups and 33 tackles this year, it doesn’t sound like he’s being pushed around much.

It also might be unwise to go after Chris Govey ’10, who started to make a name for himself when he led Amherst in solo tackles as a sophomore. Govey had three interceptions last year and has broken up four passes this season as one of the team’s captains. Teams seem to have learned their lessons and are wisely avoiding him this year, and I think I would, too.

Amherst's defense has received outstanding senior leadership from players like Fran Florio '10 (#24).

Looks like I’d have to take advantage of Amherst’s second-string players. Like Vinny DiForte ’10, another 175-pounder. Only, Bussard and Mills describe him as a terrific cover guy and a coach’s dream. The kind of guy who would run through a wall for you. There might not be a more respected player on the Amherst roster.

Okay, so maybe going deep is out of the question. But that’s alright—a strong running game is the key to victory, anyway. Teams that effectively run the ball control the clock, and teams that control the clock tend to be successful. All I’d have to do is figure out how to get by linemen Edwin Urey ’10 and Eric Pender ’10, who play with a passion and intensity you might not find in another duo of linemen. Last year they combined for 81 tackles and 10.0 sacks and were each named to the All-NESCAC First Team. They’ve already combined for 7.5 sacks this year.

Even if I managed to get by Urey and Pender, odds are I’d run into linebacker Mike Taylor ’10, who helps Govey run the show on defense. Bussard says Taylor is one of the toughest players he has ever coached. For four years, Argir has described Taylor as the smartest player he has ever been around. That intelligence and strength resulted in Taylor leading Amherst in tackles as a junior, a feat he is on pace to duplicate this season. He also led the team with three interceptions a year ago.

With Urey, Pender and Taylor leading the way, Amherst has allowed only 49.0 rushing yards per game and leads the NESCAC in sacks. Only one other team in the conference allows fewer than 70.0 rushing yards per game. So, if running the ball and going deep are out of the question, short passes are probably the way to go. After all, Amherst has allowed a NESCAC-high 292.5 passing yards per game this year. Middlebury threw for 438 yards against Amherst. Bowdoin threw for 317.

Teams that let opposing quarterbacks put up those Tom Brady-like numbers had better be ready to lose by 20 points. The only problem is, yards don’t put points on the scoreboard. Just ask Middlebury’s and Bowdoin’s quarterbacks, who combined for 755 yards, seven interceptions and only one touchdown. No NESCAC team has allowed fewer touchdowns this year than Amherst has. In their opponents’ 15 trips to the red zone, the Lord Jeffs have allowed only four touchdowns and have come up with three interceptions, one fumble recovery and two turnovers on downs.

Making big plays in key situations has become the trademark of the Amherst defense. Like when Bowdoin tried to pad its lead in the fourth quarter by going for it on fourth-and-goal, but Urey recorded his biggest tackle of the season. “We take it personally when teams go for it on fourth down,” says Taylor. “It’s like a slap in the face.”

Amherst's 20-10 victory over Middlebury may have been the Class of 2010's most significant win.

Amherst’s defense has been good before, but take one look at the Middlebury box score and tell me this group isn’t special. Middlebury had been averaging 40 points per week, and the Jeffs held them to 10. Urey and Pender each had four tackles and a sack in that game. Taylor had eight tackles and hit the quarterback seven times. Govey made five tackles and broke up a pass. Argir had a career-high 13 tackles and broke up three passes. Florio came up with a huge interception on Amherst’s 3-yard line and returned it 27 yards. With three minutes remaining in regulation, DiForte recovered a fumble and ran it back 27 yards to virtually wrap up the win. DiForte also finished with a career-high five tackles.

To have that many seniors contributing on defense is remarkable. To have that many seniors contributing on defense in one game? That’s a headache for opposing coaches.

The respect these seven players have for one another stands out just as much as their talent does. If you compliment one of them, he credits a teammate. If you compliment the defensive backs, they credit the defensive line. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve messed up and had this guy clean up for me,” Urey says, motioning to Taylor.

“Sometimes a senior class will have cliques,” Taylor says. “With us, everyone is good friends. There are no hidden agendas, especially on defense. I have no desire to be the most watched player. If I have 25 tackles and we lose, there’s nothing worse. I’d rather have no tackles and win. I think we all feel that way.”

“We genuinely want to win together,” says DiForte. “In the past there had been separation between offense and defense, but this year we’ve picked each other up. We needed a late touchdown from the offense against Bowdoin and we got it. We needed the defense to make a big stop against Middlebury and we got it.”

“These seniors have taken pride in the system,” Bussard says. “The goal-line stands and big stops speak to their personality, not just their ability. They come through when they have to.”

The phrase “bend, don’t break” has become quite cliché in sports, but has any team exemplified it the way Amherst has? I’m not saying Amherst has the greatest defense of all time, but you can’t deny that these seven seniors have something special. The rest of the NESCAC is finding that out the hard way.