Amherst Reaches Perfection with 26-21 Win at Williams
Amherst reached perfect status and won the NESCAC title in the sweetest way--by beating Williams on the Ephs' home field.
WILLIAMSTOWN, MA – Hundreds of alumni gathered around the world to witness on live television the Amherst College football team win the 2009 NESCAC title with a 26-21 win over archrival Williams College Saturday afternoon at Weston Field. The Lord Jeffs wrapped up the third 8-0 season in program history, while the Ephs finished the season at 6-2.
Williams jumped out to a 14-3 lead and seemed determined to spoil Amherst’s perfect season, but the Lord Jeffs scored the next 23 points of the game and never looked back. Amherst scored in every quarter, while the Ephs put up seven points in the first, second and fourth frames.
Saturday was so much more than a win for the Lord Jeffs, who captured their first outright NESCAC title and their first conference championship since they shared the honor with Colby and Middlebury in 2000. The win was Amherst’s first over Williams since 2004 and its first at Weston Field since 1985. With his first perfect season, head coach E.J. Mills moved to 74-30 overall and 4-9 against the Ephs.
The win also marked Amherst’s sixth perfect—and eighth unbeaten—season, with the last coming in 1984. The Lord Jeffs finished at 1-0 in 1877 and 1899, and 7-0 in 1942, while the 1964 and 1984 squads were a perfect 8-0. The 1938 (6-0-1) and 1953 (7-0-1) Amherst teams also finished unbeaten.
Williams had spoiled Amherst’s perfect season seven times prior to Saturday, with each of the past three occurrences coming in heart wrenching fashion. After scoring the go-ahead touchdown in the final minute of a 19-13 win in 1996, Williams delivered another crushing blow the following year by scoring in the final two seconds of a 48-46 thriller. In 2001, the Jeffs fell to 7-1 after a 23-20 overtime loss.
There would be no spoiling this time around, as Lord Jeff Nation got its first taste of perfection in 25 years.
The stage for Saturday’s game was set as every meeting between rivals should be. In a battle between New England’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams, there was no clear favorite. Williams had scored at least 30 points in each of its past five games (5-0), and Amherst had yet to allow more than 13 points in any contest. Neither streak held up Saturday.
The 124th meeting between Amherst and Williams featured an unstoppable force going up against an immovable object. It was the NESCAC’s top-ranked scoring offense against its top-ranked scoring defense, its best rushing offense versus its best rushing defense, and its most effective red zone offense against its most effective red zone defense.
Amherst entered the battle leading all of Division III in rushing defense (44.4 ypg), but junior sensation Ryan Lupo—the NESCAC’s top rusher—was able to run the ball 30 times for 126 yards for the Ephs. Lupo’s effort wasn’t enough, though, as the Amherst defense intercepted three passes and returned a fumble 33 yards for a touchdown in yet another outstanding defensive effort.
Alex Vetras wrapped up an outstanding season by throwing for 290 yards and two touchdowns.
Junior quarterback Alex Vetras (Clyde Hill, WA) entered the game just one pass attempt shy of tying Amherst’s single-season record of 262, which was set by Paul Foye ’87 in 1986. Vetras surpassed the record in the opening quarter, finishing the day 20-of-35 for 290 yards, no interceptions and two touchdowns, including a 70-yard connection with sophomore Andrew Reed (Riverside, CT) in the second quarter.
Adding a touchdown reception for Amherst was Brian Murphy (Evanston, IL), whose 10-yard grab made it a 26-14 game in the fourth quarter. Matt Rawson (Bethesda, MD) kicked a pair of field goals and sophomore Eric Bunker (Topsfield, MA) returned a fumble 33 yards to the end zone in the second quarter to round out the scoring for the Jeffs.
Amherst sophomore Femi Oyalowo (Bowie, MD) returned the opening kickoff to the 30-yard line. Vetras completed two short passes and handed the ball off to senior back Aaron Rauh (Hudson, OH) twice early on to move the ball into Williams territory. After an 18-yard completion to senior Brandon Bullock (West Orange, NJ), Vetras found Murphy at the 12-yard line on third down to bring Amherst into field goal range. On fourth down, Rawson put Amherst up 3-0 on a 29-yard field goal with 9:22 to play.
The Ephs’ first possession started on their own 34-yard line with a pair of hand-offs to Lupo and two completions from quarterback Pat Moffitt to quickly move into Amherst’s half of the field. After a loss of one yard, Williams caught the game’s first break as Amherst senior defensive back Fred Argir (Lakeville, MN) slipped in coverage to spring Eph receiver B.J. Griffin for a 24-yard touchdown pass. After the point-after attempt was converted, Williams held a 7-3 lead with 5:28 to play in the first quarter.
Amherst then went three-and-out, leading to a punt from senior Matt Eberhart (Plano, TX) that handed the ball back to the Ephs at their own 33-yard line. Williams moved the ball 33 yards on just three plays, before Amherst junior Nick Edwards (Greenwich, CT) picked off Moffitt at the 18-yard line to shut the door on the fast-moving Williams offense. The Jeffs could not capitalize on the turnover, and went three-and-out once again before Eberhart came on to punt the ball away with just 1:25 to play in the opening quarter.
Early in the second quarter, Williams capped another quick-paced, six-play 52-yard drive with a 28-yard touchdown pass from Moffitt to Bryce Bennett. With 13:52 to play in the second frame and the hosts boasting a 14-3 lead, Williams had already scored more points than Amherst had allowed in any game this season.
On the ensuing Amherst possession, a pair of consecutive 15-yard personal fouls backed the Jeffs all the way to their 8-yard line before Eberhart took the field for his third punt of the half. Eberhart uncorked a 57-yard punt from his own end zone to give Williams possession at midfield. For the first time in the game, the Lord Jeff defense took charge, holding the Ephs to -13 yards on three plays to force a Williams punt. On the defensive stand, sophomore Kevin Ferber (Mahwah, NJ) sacked Moffitt for a loss of 11 yards.
After taking possession on its 20-yard line, Amherst handed the ball to Oyalowo on first down for an 8-yard scamper. After Oyalowo picked up a first down, Vetras went deep to Reed, who shook a defender after catching the ball and went the distance for Amherst. The 70-yard catch-and-run to paydirt closed the gap to 14-10 in Williams’ favor with 9:25 to play in the first half.
The two schools traded three-and-outs, but a miscue on a Williams punt proved to be a game changer. The long snap to Will Cronin was too high to handle, and as the ball skipped around on the wet turf, Bunker scooped up the ball and dashed 33 yards into the end zone to put Amherst back on top, 17-14. Neither team scored in the final 4:08 of the first half, as Amherst went to the locker room with a three-point lead.
Eric Bunker returned a fumble 33 yards for a go-ahead touchdown in the second quarter.
With 6:07 to play in the third quarter, Amherst started a drive at its own 26-yard line. After a short run and an incomplete pass, Vetras hit sophomore wide receiver Kevin Heller (Brooklyn, NY) for a 39-yard bomb to keep the drive alive. Three plays later, Heller hauled in another 15-yard completion from Vetras to move the ball down to the Williams 15-yard line. The Lord Jeffs were unable to punch the ball into the end zone, but with 2:36 to play in the third Rawson hit a 28-yard field goal to put Amherst ahead, 20-14.
Two plays after the Rawson field goal, Edwards snagged his second interception of the day on a first-down pass attempt by Williams quarterback Matt Coyne. The Jeffs moved the ball 20 yards on six plays, but Rawson pulled a 39-yard field goal attempt wide left. After taking over on downs, Williams was unable to run a play before time expired in the third quarter.
Once again early on in a Williams possession, Amherst’s secondary made a huge play as Argir pulled a Moffitt pass away from an Eph receiver for his NESCAC-leading sixth interception of the year. On the ensuing drive, Vetras found Andre Gary (Exeter, NH) for a 54-yard completion in double coverage to set up a first-and-goal at the Williams 10. On the next play from scrimmage, Vetras hit Murphy in traffic in the corner of the end zone to put the Jeffs up 26-14. Head coach EJ Mills elected to go for the two-point conversion, but a Vetras pass fell incomplete with 13:34 to play in the fourth quarter.
After the Murphy touchdown, Williams moved the ball 63 yards on eight plays to set up a first-and-goal at the Lord Jeff 4-yard line. On the ninth play of the drive, Williams spread the field for Moffitt to scamper through the trenches untouched for an Eph touchdown. With the extra-point tacked on, Amherst’s lead shrank to 26-21 with 10:23 to play.
With Amherst’s lead shrinking, Lord Jeff Nation cringed when an Amherst fumble was recovered by Williams at the Amherst 43-yard line with just 3:44 to play. So many times the Ephs had broken the hearts of Amherst fans in the waning moments of games, and the home team seemed poised to do it again.
A heartbreaking loss would not be in the cards this time around, however, as Williams failed to convert on a 4th-and-4 opportunity with 1:18 remaining in regulation. Moffitt hit tight end Jon Carroll on a short pass, but the Ephs were cut short of the first down by one yard thanks to the biggest tackle in the career of senior quad-captain Chris Govey (Easton, MA). Govey's stop put a halt to the Williams comeback attempt and handed the ball back to Amherst.
Vetras began the ensuing Amherst drive by taking a knee, with Williams using its final timeout with only 1:10 to play. Amherst’s quarterback dropped to his knee a second time to inch the Jeffs closer to perfection, and a third time would run the clock to 00:00 with the scoreboard reading 26-21 in Amherst’s favor. With the final whistle, Amherst secured its perfect season.
First-year Sam Clark (Andover, MA) led the Amherst defense with nine tackles, while junior Brandon Quinn (Atlanta, GA) and senior Mike Taylor (Evanston, IL) added eight and seven, respectively. Rauh and Oyalowo combined for 65 yards on the ground, with Murphy catching seven passes for 57 yards. The teams were virtually identical in nearly every statistical category, with key plays on defense once again proving to be Amherst’s savior.
The road to 8-0 wasn’t easy. The Lord Jeffs trailed at the end of the first quarter in five of their games. They needed a touchdown in the final three minutes to edge Bowdoin, 13-12. They were tied at halftime during a 13-3 win over a gritty Tufts team. NESCAC powerhouse Trinity led 9-0 after the opening quarter and 12-7 at halftime, but the Jeffs scored 16 unanswered points in the second half.
Aside from a 23-0 win over Wesleyan—the Jeffs’ only victory by more than 11 points—Amherst didn’t blow any team out. They didn’t score more than 23 points in any game prior to Saturday. No contest was ever a sure thing. But, as Amherst demonstrated, you don’t have to lead the league in scoring to go 8-0. You simply need to score more points than the team trying to beat you. And that’s what Amherst did. Eight times.
Defensive backs Vinny DiForte (#22) and Fran Florio (#24) had plenty of reasons to be proud of their phenomenal senior seasons.
The collegiate football careers of 12 Lord Jeffs came to a close Saturday. The Class of 2010 posted a 21-11 record in four years, with 2009 marking its best season by far. The group earned a combined five All-NESCAC postseason honors, with the 2009 All-Conference Teams set to be released Nov. 18.
The team will lose four defensive backs in Argir, Govey, Fran Florio (Staten Island, NY) and Vinny DiForte (Staten Island, NY). Helping to make up one of the best secondary units, these four players combined for 17 interceptions, 41 pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery in their careers. Argir’s 2009 performance stood out among any other, finishing the season with six interceptions, eight breakups and 57 tackles.
Also playing in their final games for Amherst’s defense were Taylor and linemen Eric Pender (Drexel Hill, PA) and Edwin Urey (Quincy, MA). Taylor finishes his season with 4.0 sacks, five pass breakups, three forced fumbles and 89 tackles, making him a strong candidate for NESCAC Defensive Player of the Year. As 2008 All-Conference First Team selections, Urey and Pender combined for 27.0 sacks in four years.
The Jeffs will also have to part with 2008 All-NESCAC Second Team selections Rauh and Bullock. As a four-year starting running back, Rauh combined for 1,593 yards and 18 touchdowns in his impressive career, while Bullock caught 90 passes for 831 yards and eight touchdowns.
Saying goodbye to the Amherst offensive line will be Wyatt Moss (Westport, CT) and tight end Dan Savage (Bronxville, NY), who played an integral in Rauh’s success. After Amherst’s o-line allowed a mere five sacks in 2008, the Lord Jeffs were once again impressive in 2009, surrendering only eight sacks thanks in large part to senior leadership from Moss and Savage.
Rounding out the Class of 2010 is Eberhart, a 2007 All-NESCAC Second Team honoree. As a four-year starter, Eberhart handled the majority of the team’s field goals in his first three years before focusing on punting in 2009. He connected on 18 of 26 career field goal attempts, also handling 54 kickoffs and 94 punts in his time. Twenty-five of Eberhart’s punts pinned Amherst’s opposition inside the 20-yard line.
Replacing such a talented group won’t be easy, but Coach Mills and the Lord Jeffs have plenty of time to worry about that. In the meantime, Amherst can enjoy what only two other teams in program history have been able to accomplish. The Lord Jeffs’ year of bragging rights begins today.