The football team built an early lead against Bates with strong rushing and stellar play in the trenches, but the Cardinals had to withstand a furious fourth quarter comeback to preserve a 24-22 victory at their match on Oct. 13. With the win, Wesleyan now has a 4-0 record heading into Homecoming and is undefeated this far into the season for the first time since 1998.
Much of credit must go to Wesleyan’s linemen for setting the tone for the game on both sides of the ball. On offense, the line exerted its will on the Bobcats defense, opening holes for the Cardinal running backs, who picked up 198 yards on 46 carries, and keeping quarterback Jesse Warren ’15 upright; he did not take a single sack on the day. Offensive line play is unglamorous and often overlooked, but Jim Curley ’13, Mike Radespiel ’16, Jacob Sheffer ’14, Shane Scannell ’15, and Pat DiMase ’15 especially deserve their due after this win.
Bates quarterback Trevor Smith was not so well protected, as Zach Vinci ’15 and Nik Powers ’15 each had a field day in the Bobcats’ backfield. Vinci paced the defense with seven tackles on the day, while Powers recorded six, including four tackles for loss. Both Vinci and Powers picked up a pair of sacks apiece in the contest, while the defensive line shut down an otherwise potent Bates rushing attack. After accruing upwards of 300 yards on the ground in consecutive games, Bates ran for just 126 against Wesleyan, averaging a mere 3.0 yards per carry.
It was this trench dominance that allowed Wesleyan to jump out ahead and control the play for most of the game. Warren threw for a touchdown in each of the first three quarters, and the defense held Bates largely in check. The Cardinals headed into the fourth quarter with a commanding 21-6 lead, outplaying the Bobcats on the road with no signs of letting up.
Early on, it was not so certain that Wesleyan would dominate the game. Reigning NESCAC Rookie of the Year LaDarius Drew ’15 started the game as running back, but he went down with an injury after just seven first-quarter carries. It was Kyle Gibson ’15 that picked up the slack and was the workhorse out of the backfield, running 32 times for 141 yards to help Wes win the ball possession battle over the rest of the game.
“In order to compete at the very highest level, you need to have good depth across the board,” said head coach Mike Whalen. “When your offense runs the football like we do, there are going to be injuries, so it’s important that every running back in our program prepares to play each and every week. You never know when your number is going to be called and it’s important that every player is ready to perform at a very high level.”
For three quarters it appeared as though every Cardinal was heeding Whalen’s call to perform at that high level. But the fourth was a different story. The tide began to turn just 12 seconds into the quarter, when a Warren pass was intercepted and returned 59 yards for a Bates score; it was Warren’s second of three interceptions on the day. Though Wesleyan would do some damage two drives later, picking up a 21-yard field goal off the leg of Sebastian Aguirre ’14 and milking 5:48 off the clock on a 10-play drive, the Cardinal offense was otherwise stymied in the final quarter.
The Bobcat attack was not so slowed. After the pick six, Bates drove for a field goal of its own to cut the score to 21-15 before Aguirre converted on his chip shot, and another interception gave Bates the ball right on the Cardinal goal line. Bobcat running back Ryan Curit converted on a one-yard plunge on the very next play, bringing Bates within two points with 2:08 remaining in the game.
Though Wesleyan just needed to run the final minutes off the clock, Bates immediately forced the Cardinals into a three-and-out, forcing them to punt the ball back to the Bobcats with 1:21 left in the game. Getting the ball on his own 19-yard line, Smith looked primed to snatch the win away from Wes. After completing four of his first six passes on the drive for 50 yards, Smith had moved Bates all the way to the Wesleyan 31-yard line. With Bates in range to shoot for the end zone and the clock ticking down, the Cardinal defense held its ground. On the final four plays, Vinci recorded his second sack of the game, and Jon Lis ’13 and Jake Bussani ’14 each knocked away would-be completions. When Bussani’s defended pass hit the turf, the clock read zero, and Wesleyan escaped with a win that was too close for comfort.
After the game, the Cardinals took pride in their impressive play early on, but they could not be altogether satisfied after Bates almost took this game away from them.
“As far as the Bates game goes, it was a lot closer than we would’ve liked, but it’s always nice to come away with a win,” said Kevin Hughes ’14, who led all Wes receivers with five catches for 61 yards. “We took a lot of positives from the game, but there are obviously still a lot of things we need to work on in preparation for the second half of the season. In the Bates game there were times when the offense struggled and the defense came up with big stops, and there were other times when the offense kept our defense off the field with long scoring drives. I think because these past two games have been so close, we’ve gained a lot of confidence as a team, and I think our experience in close games will only help us through the rest of the season.”
The Cardinals will put their undefeated record on the line this Saturday, Oct. 20 at 1 p.m. when they face Amherst, which stands at 3-1 in the season. It has been a decade since Wesleyan last beat the Lord Jeffs, eking out a 14-13 win back in 2002. Yet despite the Cardinals’ recent track record against their Little Three rival, this team only cares about how it has played in 2012. After blowing out opponents in their first two games and overcoming adversity to pull out wins in their last two, the Cardinals are ready to take on anyone who lines up against them.
“Amherst is a very talented football team who has posted the best record in the NESCAC over the past three and a half seasons,” Whalen said. “It’s when you play a team like Amherst that you truly find out what you’re capable of. Our players will have to rise up to the challenge and play a complete game for 60 full minutes.”